Estimated read time: 9-10 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's capital city is in the middle of arguably its most pivotal moment since it was incorporated 172 years ago, meaning the decisions this decade may have significant impacts for years to come.
And Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall believes the city is up to the task. That's the key message she outlined in her State of the City address Tuesday evening in which she also announced a $100 million fundraising partnership to revitalize the city's Ballpark neighborhood.
"How we rise to the opportunities and challenges in the next five years can chart our course for the next century of this capital city, and set in motion a future that is bright for generations to come. I've said it before and it's worth stating again, the character of this city isn't created through the successes and challenges we face together — it's only revealed," Mendenhall said, speaking inside a packed Woodbine Food Hall in the city's Granary District.
"That character is powerful, creative, tenacious and so caring," she added. "There's no stopping us. We're bold. We're courageous. We're Salt Lakers and we are ready."
While Salt Lake City is benefiting from new business opportunities, including the growth of Delta Air Lines in the city, it's also facing impacts from unaffordable housing and ongoing drought conditions. The mayor unveiled her intent for new measures to handle housing affordability and water conservation, while also spotlighting current successes.
The city is also set to benefit from a major fundraising initiative led by the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation as it moves the Salt Lake Bees out of the city in the coming year, she said.
Her message was similar to Gov. Spencer Cox's State of the State address last week, in that it focused heavily on thinking about future generations as the government makes decisions at the moment. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson also gave her own "State of the County" address Monday night.
New economic growth
There's currently a lot going for the city right now. Salt Lake City International Airport recently struck an agreement with Delta Air Lines, generating $3 billion in "commitments" and extending the airline's stay in the area through at least 2044, as the airport becomes a major piece in their operations. Company representatives were even on hand to watch Tuesday's speech.
Mendenhall also touted the return of both the Outdoor Retailer show and the NBA All-Star Game this year. The former, which provides an estimated annual economic of $46 million, wrapped up its winter market earlier this month. The latter is forecast to provide more than $40 million in economic impacts when it begins next month. Salt Lake is also still in the running for hosting a Winter Olympics either in 2030 or 2034.
The city's downtown is also slowly recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as it begins to transition into a more residential space.
The mayor added that she delivered her speech in the district she believes embodies the "reinvention and evolution" that the city is experiencing since the pandemic. The district itself has gone from primarily dormant to one of the "more vibrant" parts of the city as more businesses move just south of the downtown core over the past few years.
A major fundraising effort
Mendenhall's speech was delivered one week after the Larry H. Miller Company announced it will move the Salt Lake Bees out of Salt Lake City and into South Jordan after the 2024 season, sparking the city's new efforts to "reimagine" the Smith's Ballpark area.
However, Mendenhall announced Tuesday that the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation is offering to lead a major $100 million fundraising initiative as a parting gift. Salt Lake City, Zions Bank and Intermountain Health are also set to participate in a program that aims to "bring tremendous leverage" to the ideas on how to improve the neighborhood.
It's unclear what will replace the Bees but the mayor later referenced the potential of a "successor" to the Delta Center ending up in the Ballpark neighborhood or on the city's west side sometime down the road, which could bring an NHL hockey team along with it.
In a statement, company officials wrote that they are "excited" to participate in the city's Ballpark Next project that will fill the void left by the Bees.
"The Miller family and the Larry H. Miller Company have a deep history with and confidence in Salt Lake City and are committed to Ballpark Next and the bright future of our capital city," the statement read, in part.
The announcement was a welcomed surprise for Amy Hawkins, the chairwoman of the Ballpark Community Council. She said she's still processing the neighborhood's loss of the Bees. For her, it was the latest blow to the neighborhood, which became the center of the city's crime issues last year.
She's also not sure what to expect from the Ballpark Next effort. But the fundraising effort gives her hope that a turnaround is on the horizon.
That's why she said she went up to Gail Miller and thanked her for it after the speech wrapped up.
"I think that gift was in recognition that there's (a) need," Hawkins said. "It wasn't just a gift to the city. It was a gift to a neighborhood that needs help. That's really important."
Unaffordable housing and homelessness
The rising costs of housing and living are some of the biggest challenges currently facing the city.
The city is currently investing $30 million dollars toward affordable housing in the 2023 fiscal year, after spending nearly $16 million over the past two years, the most the city has ever spent on it, Mendenhall said. It's helped open up nearly 2,500 affordable housing units over the past three years, city officials say.
City leaders are also poised to adopt measures from its "Thriving in Place" project this year, in an effort to address gentrification in the city. On that note, the mayor announced Tuesday she also wants the city to spend up to $10 million in American Rescue Plan funds toward 1,000 new "very affordable" housing units and 500 resident-owned homes for 1,500 families in the city, as a way to "expand our inventory of family-sized affordable housing."
The project would be in collaboration with the Perpetual Housing Fund of Utah. In addition, about 400 new housing units for chronically homeless individuals are expected to open later this year. The mayor credited the project and other efforts to reduce homelessness to collaboration with the state, neighboring cities in the county and service providers.
"As much as some folks out there, even today, would tell you that homelessness should be 'solved' by the mayor alone, that's a backward and false notion," she said.
Water and other environmental measures
Water is becoming another challenge, even though Utah's snowpack is much better this winter and residents were able to save close to 3 billion gallons of water last year.
Mendenhall acknowledged that the water saved, while beneficial for the city's supply, won't save the city's namesake, the Great Salt Lake, which still suffers from a 391-billion-gallon deficit on average. A report from over a dozen experts released earlier this month warned that the lake could disappear in the next five years if excessive water consumption continues.
It's why she unveiled three water conservation proposals for the Salt Lake City Council to consider:
- Conduct a "top to bottom" review of the city's water usage, including at parks and cemeteries, to find and fix any inefficiencies.
- Implement a temporary drought surcharge on the city's "biggest water consumers" to discourage excessive outdoor watering in the summer.
- Pledge to send almost 13 billion gallons of the city's "high-quality treated water" to the Great Salt Lake every year. The city's reclamation facility currently treats 35 million gallons of water every day.
"History will judge us for the choices we make and don't make right now," she said. "Five years is not a long time, so it won't actually be our grandkids who judge us or even our kids. We will be able to judge ourselves."
Cox also referenced the report about the potential for the lake to disappear in the next five years in his speech last week, vowing that the state is "not going to let that happen."
Meanwhile, Mendenhall added that efforts are still being made to end the city's "dependence" on fossil fuels in an effort to improve air quality and combat climate change. The 80-megawatt Elektron Solar project in Tooele County is expected to deliver net-100% renewable energy for every city user over the next decade; it was supposed to go online by this March but has since been delayed by U.S. regulations, according to the city.
The city is also ramping up its electric vehicle fleet and charging ports, and advocating for more permanent fare-free transit programs.
Other odds and ends
Overall crime has fallen by 12% since it spiked at the "height of the pandemic," Mendenhall said. She credits data-driven police policies for helping reduce crime, though it still remains an issue in some areas.
But crime isn't the only safety issue. Salt Lake City ended up with 26 traffic deaths last year, prompting the city to begin the process to join the Vision Zero Network, a coalition of cities working to find solutions to curb traffic deaths. There have been six major incidents already this year.
The mayor said the city will begin budgeting for more protected left-turn signals and planning to reduce areas where right turns are legal at city intersections, in an effort to reduce auto-pedestrian crashes. The city also plans to fund more traffic-calming measures in the near future.
Mendenhall ended her address by bringing it back to the venue she chose, as she mentioned other major projects on the way, such as Rocky Mountain Power's massive headquarters redevelopment. The Granary District's growth, Delta Air Line's investment in the city and the new fundraising effort are all examples of how the city is adjusting to changes as it grows.
"Cities are constantly changing. That is in their nature," she said. "Cities that don't change, don't adapt, don't evolve — those cities die. Reinvention is how cities survive. ... The potential for our downtown is limitless, and our commitment to creatively fulfilling it will be relentless."