Smith group says it will respect Salt Lake's Abravanel Hall decision; residents split on plan

Funding for major Abravanel Hall renovations, which could exceed $200 million, has not yet been identified, according to Salt Lake County.

Funding for major Abravanel Hall renovations, which could exceed $200 million, has not yet been identified, according to Salt Lake County. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Smith Entertainment Group will respect Salt Lake County's decision on two arts and culture buildings caught in the middle of its proposed entertainment district plans, a high-ranking company official said Tuesday.

Mike Maughan, project principal for Smith Entertainment Group, said the group will support the county's decision on Abravanel Hall and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts.

"(The county has) our support with whatever they choose to do there," he said, standing in front of residents wearing pins and stickers reading phases like "Save Abravanel Hall" and "UMOCA Matters" during a public hearing the Salt Lake City Council held on the matter Tuesday night.

"We feel strongly that a symphony hall — that the arts — stay on site and that we continue to have that as a deep and important piece of what we're doing with this sports, entertainment, culture and community district," he added.

Salt Lake County officials estimate renovating Abravanel Hall would likely cost close to or more than $200 million. In a separate meeting held earlier Tuesday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson told members of the County Council funding for renovations and upgrades to Abravanel Hall would cost about the same as demolishing and rebuilding the 45-year-old concert hall.

While she recommends the building remain "in its present form," it's unclear yet if renovations will be paid for by the Utah bill that creates a downtown revitalization zone behind all the discussions.

"We don't have an identified revenue stream," Wilson said.

A kaleidoscope of opinions

The Utah Legislature approved SB272 this year, setting up a revitalization district surrounding a basketball/hockey arena that will play home to the Utah Jazz and Utah's National Hockey League team. It also authorizes Salt Lake City to issue up to a 0.5% sales tax increase to pay for projects.

Smith Entertainment Group submitted a proposal seeking a three-block section of the city for the district. It would feature a renovated Delta Center and two blocks east of the arena.

The county's and city's meetings Tuesday generated a little more insight into what's planned for downtown Salt Lake City. Maughan shared a map showing each block would have its own purpose.

The Delta Center would feature sports, while the block to its east would be an entertainment district with renovations to the Salt Palace Convention Center. A culture/convention block would exist at the site of Abravanel Hall and Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts. He also reiterated, the company plans to spend at least $3 billion toward the project.

A map of the proposed sports, entertainment, culture and convention district that would exist around the Delta Center if approved.
A map of the proposed sports, entertainment, culture and convention district that would exist around the Delta Center if approved. (Photo: Smith Entertainment Group)

But both meetings provided much more insight into the public's interest and opinion.

Several residents spoke about the issue during Salt Lake County's meeting. Later Tuesday, about 70 people signed up to speak in favor or against the bill during the Salt Lake City meeting, dwarfing all other topics on the agenda of the meeting. Over 2½ hours were spent on the topic alone.

Many residents and business owners spoke out in favor of the plan, which they said could reenergize downtown.

"This is a great opportunity for all the parties involved," said JC Hamilton, who said he lives within two blocks of the Delta Center. "We, as the public, should look at this as an investment in our city, our county and our state."

A few residents said the project would have to be "done right" to avoid negative impacts.

Salt Lake City residents provide feedback on a proposed capital city revitalization district during the Salt Lake City Council's meeting Tuesday night. About 70 people signed up to provide public comment.
Salt Lake City residents provide feedback on a proposed capital city revitalization district during the Salt Lake City Council's meeting Tuesday night. About 70 people signed up to provide public comment. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

Multiple residents blasted aspects of the plan or the entire plan, arguing tax money shouldn't be used for private development. The proposed tax is projected to generate $1.2 billion over a 30-year lifespan; up to $900 million of that could go toward Smith Entertainment Group.

Several people called the process outlined in SB272 "rushed." Others said they don't believe the plan is "fully realized" or that Smith Entertainment Group is doing the "bare minimum."

Some also took shots at the proposed downtown zoning changes that are going through a separate process. These include building heights and signage amendments.

"This plan prioritizes parking for cars and helicopters, but it ignores traffic implications," said resident Natalie Brooks, adding she's concerned the changes will create a "commercial and advertising district."

A resident wears a sticker supporting the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts during a Salt Lake City Council public hearing Tuesday night.
A resident wears a sticker supporting the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts during a Salt Lake City Council public hearing Tuesday night. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

The vast majority of both meetings appeared to focus on protecting some of the existing landmarks in the area, such as Abravanel Hall, UMOCA and the remnants of historic Japantown. There were also requests to ensure the Salt Palace Convention Center can retain a similar amount of square footage for conventions.

Carolyn Abravanel, the widow of maestro Maurice Abravanel, the namesake of the concert hall, was among dozens of residents who spoke out about demolishing the concert hall. It tacked onto the many residents who expressed concerns over the building during the county meeting, which people called "irreplaceable."

"If we demolish Abravanel Hall — thus risking the loss of our symphony — it means we're also risking diminishing both the quality of arts education in our city, county and state and extinguishing the source of inspiration and support for artists who are growing up in Utah," said Geneva Lawrence, of Salt Lake City.

Expanding the district?

Some residents also asked for the plan to include affordable housing, pointing to a letter that Crossroads Urban Center sent Salt Lake City leaders. And some pleaded for the three entities to link the district to other ambitious projects around downtown Salt Lake City.

Frederick Jenny, of Salt Lake City, asked the County Council to consider adding the resident-led Rio Grande Plan to the zone. The project — estimated by Salt Lake City to cost at least $3 billion — would bury a section of the railroad lines that cut through Salt Lake City near the Delta Center. Advocates say that would repair a major divide between the east and west sides of the city.

"Barriers extend more than just the Salt Palace," he said. "The railroad tracks divide our city in half and prevent people from being able to use the facilities that the east (has) as compared to the west side."

Salt Lake City also has plans tied to improve historic Japantown and Main Street, both of which border the proposed entertainment district.

Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Victoria Petro told KSL on Tuesday she's not aware of discussions about anything beyond the three blocks Smith Entertainment Group is focused on; however, she says Smith Entertainment Group has been flexible to new ideas since discussions began last month.

"We know money is a limiting factor; resources are a limiting factor, so at some point, we're going to have to prioritize (projects)," she said.

An ongoing process

The City Council ultimately tallied more people in support of the plan — or at least in support with certain conditions attached. Maughan, who stuck around for the full meeting, said he was generally "encouraged" by what he heard.

Wilson said Tuesday she believes there's a "sense of urgency" for Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and Smith Entertainment Group to reach a district deal by the Sept. 1 deadline outlined in SB272. Its quick deadline is creating confusion over what will be included in the final plan.

Yet nothing is final and there's plenty of time for residents to speak up about the proposal. After Tuesday's marathon session, the City Council agreed to continue the hearing at a later date. That means there will be at least one more public hearing before a final vote on the matter.

Petro said the city will continue to welcome all feedback as it processes everything. It's possible that a deal, if reached, could also get amended in the future based on new needs or unforeseen challenges, she added.

The city could vote on an agreement with Smith Entertainment Group as early as July 2. The deal would then have to be approved by a new state commission before the City Council votes on whether to adopt the sales tax increase.

Salt Lake City leaders are also balancing the agreement with the city's annual budget process, making for a chaotic race to meet both the deadline for the 2025 fiscal year on July 1 and the district agreement.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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