Salt Lake City’s Secret to Escaping the Recession

With the LDS Church’s financing of a huge downtown development, “in Salt Lake, the cranes kept moving,” says Mayor Ralph Becker.

National Journal
Nancy Cook
April 15, 2014, 8:05 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Salt Lake City and The New West.

Salt Lake City May­or Ral­ph Beck­er is not your typ­ic­al Utah politi­cian. For starters, he’s a Demo­crat and a proud pro­gress­ive in a Red State, the son of a former U.S. am­bas­sad­or, who grew up in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and at­ten­ded a private Epis­copal school. Yet, Beck­er settled in Utah roughly 40 years ago, drawn to the West through sum­mer jobs with the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice. He at­ten­ded law school at the Uni­versity of Utah, ran his own plan­ning and con­sult­ing busi­ness, and then rose through the ranks of the Utah state­house be­fore as­sum­ing of­fice in 2008 as the may­or of Salt Lake City, a bur­geon­ing and in­creas­ingly di­verse met­ro­pol­it­an area where the city pop­u­la­tion now clocks in at just un­der 200,000 res­id­ents.

Beck­er re­cently sat down with Na­tion­al Journ­al to talk about Salt Lake City’s eco­nom­ic fu­ture — from its shock­ingly low un­em­ploy­ment rate to its in­clu­sion on na­tion­al “Best Places to Live” lists to long-term chal­lenges such as air qual­ity, edu­ca­tion, and chan­ging demo­graph­ics. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

One of the strik­ing data points about Salt Lake City is its low un­em­ploy­ment com­pared with the na­tion­al rate. It seems that Salt Lake es­caped the af­ter­math of the re­ces­sion bet­ter than most places. What’s the secret?

There were a few things that helped us. One is that we have a very di­verse eco­nomy; it’s not like we were com­pletely de­pend­ent on one sec­tor. Cer­tainly an­oth­er key factor was that just be­fore the re­ces­sion star­ted, the LDS church star­ted to think about build­ing a $1.5 bil­lion down­town de­vel­op­ment called City Creek Cen­ter. There was a mall in its place once, but now it is an ex­ample of one of the first LEED-cer­ti­fied, true mixed de­vel­op­ments. The LDS church paid cash for that de­vel­op­ment. As Lane Beat­tie, head of the Salt Lake Cham­ber says, the dif­fer­ence between Salt Lake and oth­er cit­ies is that in Salt Lake the cranes kept mov­ing. So really, there was vir­tu­ally no slow­down in de­vel­op­ment.

We’ve also been the great be­ne­fi­ciar­ies of the na­tion­al trend of more and more people mov­ing back in­to and liv­ing in cit­ies. I would at­trib­ute part of this to the Uni­versity of Utah, which is this in­cred­ible en­gine of en­tre­pren­eur­i­al activ­ity and spin-offs. There is just this flow of new busi­nesses that brings lots of new en­ergy in­to the com­munity. We have a young work­force that is re­l­at­ively well edu­cated and an area that has a very high qual­ity of life. People find it easy and en­joy­able to live here for a vari­ety of reas­ons. My own sense of it is that there has been this whole com­bin­a­tion of factors that has provided for an un­usu­al level of prosper­ity at a time when oth­ers faltered. We wer­en’t im­mune from [the re­ces­sion], but we didn’t ex­per­i­ence it the way oth­er people did.

What is the LDS church’s role in the eco­nomy here? You men­tioned its massive down­town de­vel­op­ment, City Creek Cen­ter.

They play both a huge role and an in­vis­ible role. They do not get in­volved in a lot that we do in the sec­u­lar world. They’ll weigh in on maybe li­quor or gay-mar­riage ques­tions, is­sues that are doc­trin­al for them, but oth­er than that, this is the home for their in­ter­na­tion­al re­li­gion, and they take great pride in hav­ing us be a wel­com­ing place. You see that in­flu­ence play out in a num­ber of ways. They in­vest in our down­town. But when it comes to play­ing a sig­ni­fic­ant role in the de­cisions we make day-to-day about the city or the state, they’re hands-off. That does not mean that the Mor­mon cul­ture isn’t per­vas­ive in a whole lot of de­cisions in this state, but it’s not in an overt, heavy-handed way at all. They also don’t ask for any­thing. When they did the City Creek de­vel­op­ment, they didn’t ask for the tra­di­tion­al eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment in­cent­ives like breaks. They just put the money in­to it.

In­ter­est­ingly, a ma­jor eco­nom­ic con­cern here among politi­cians and busi­nesses is an en­vir­on­ment­al one: poor air qual­ity. What are you, as may­or, do­ing to tackle it?

Well, I’d in­vite you to read my State of the City talk. I laid out my views on the is­sue and what we can do and what we have to do to get oth­ers to help us. The city is one-tenth of the pop­u­la­tion of the re­gion, and we’re a smal­ler part of the geo­graphy. We have done and will con­tin­ue to do a lot to di­min­ish our con­tri­bu­tions to the air pol­lu­tion and the val­ley. But the only way we’ll be able to make sig­ni­fic­ant changes to the air qual­ity is to take it on on a re­gion­al scale and to ad­dress the greatest con­trib­ut­ors to air pol­lu­tion. You cer­tainly don’t see it today [in terms of the weath­er], but in the winter sea­son, if we don’t get reg­u­lar storms com­ing through here, the in­ver­sions trap the air in this val­ley and that in­cludes all of the pol­lut­ants in the air. It doesn’t take very many days for the pol­lut­ants to build up in the val­ley.

We can con­vert our city fleets. We can give every res­id­ent a greatly dis­coun­ted trans­it pass. We can redo our streets, so they provide for bikes and trans­it and make our city more walk­able. But the fact of the mat­ter is that things have to be done at the state level, so we need the state to take on great­er and more meas­ures to ad­dress air pol­lu­tion. It not only af­fects people’s health; it af­fects the eco­nomy and how at­tract­ive this area is for com­pan­ies and folks look­ing to move here.

It seems like tack­ling air qual­ity would be hard, since so many down­town work­ers com­mute in­to the city by car.

We’ve had the largest de­vel­op­ment of urb­an rail of any­place in the coun­try in the last few years. We’ve built over 140 miles of urb­an rail. We have built this in­cred­ible rail sys­tem, but the trans­it sys­tem is not com­plete. Our geo­graph­ic­al cov­er­age with our buses is not that great; our fre­quency of ser­vice is not that great. Our hours of op­er­a­tion are not that great. In this last le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion, a num­ber of us were push­ing very hard to raise the abil­ity of loc­al gov­ern­ment to in­crease our taxes and rev­en­ues for trans­it. But we can’t raise the cap [on those taxes] without state au­thor­iz­a­tion. They didn’t pass it, and it frus­trated me. I’m not say­ing that we’re go­ing to go from 95 per­cent of the trips be­ing made by auto­mobile and flip that, but I think that if we provided good, con­veni­ent trans­it, a lot more people would use it.

What are the long-term eco­nom­ic chal­lenges for the city that most worry you?

I think the air-qual­ity is­sue will con­tin­ue to haunt us un­less we do a bet­ter job. I think that edu­cat­ing our kids well, so they have op­por­tun­it­ies (and equal op­por­tun­it­ies) to be suc­cess­ful is a big un­der­tak­ing. We have com­mit­ted edu­cat­ors and com­mit­ted lead­ers, but their re­sources are lack­ing, par­tic­u­larly for the chan­ging demo­graph­ics we have.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
7 REPUBLICANS ON STAGE
Carly Fiorina Will Not Be Allowed to Debate on Saturday
2 days ago
THE LATEST

ABC News has announced the criteria for Saturday’s Republican debate, and that means Carly Fiorina won’t be a part of it. The network is demanding candidates have “a top-three finish in Iowa, a top-six standing in an average of recent New Hampshire polls or a top-six placement in national polls in order for candidates to qualify.” And there will be no “happy hour” undercard debate this time. “So that means no Fiorina vs. Jim Gilmore showdown earlier in the evening for the most ardent of campaign 2016 junkies.

Source:
×