Monthly Archives: July 2011

Provo Post 6: A Tale of Another City

Contemplating future prosperity in Provo, I’ve been surprised at how strongly schools keep standing out as the missing piece of the puzzle. Though I wouldn’t be opposed to Provo becoming a hip urban center filled with child-less twenty- and thirty-somethings, long term economic development certainly hinges on families making the city their home. Moreover, I’ve heard many permanent residents in Provo express a desire to draw more families to the area (specifically who will buy homes).

But here’s some not-even-close-to-breaking news: Provo schools are terrible. I’ve pointed this out in past posts, and mentioned how that fact drives people to other parts of the state (or, also, to other states). Still, however, there is little or no discussion about the connections between economic growth/prosperity and good schools. So, let me tell a story about Glendora, where I grew up.

Glendora is a relatively upscale suburb of L.A. The population was somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 when I lived there and I don’t think it has changed dramatically since. Also, it’s a (grueling, miserable) hour drive from downtown L.A. and has no significant industry to speak of.

Anyway, when I was in high school, Glendora voted on a school bond. As a high school student I wasn’t deeply immersed in local politics, but I know that the bond basically required property owners to pay higher taxes, which would then go to the schools.

The bond was fairly controversial because Glendora isn’t just comparatively rich, it’s also kind of old. The city is and was home to many empty nesters and otherwise elderly people, many of whom were outraged that they would have to pay for the education of another generation of kids.

But still, the bond passed.

As I understand it, Glendora’s schools have had their ups and downs over the years, but throughout it all they have remained highly ranked. Again, remember that there is no industry, higher education, etc. in Glendora that compels people to live there. In a sea of similar suburbs, Glendora’s biggest selling point is its schools. That’s the main reason my family moved there when I was very young, and it was the reason lots of families did the same. I also don’t think it is unreasonable to say that if Glendora’s schools suddenly declined in quality the city would gradually shrink and become a ghetto, like many other Southern California suburbs.

The point here is that Glendora used taxation to better the city. I think that is an important point that people in Provo could learn. Sure, we all hate paying taxes and having less money. I know I do. But any family that has a choice will not move to an area with bad schools. Similarly, people will not move to places with dilapidated downtowns, bad roads, crumbling community centers, a lack of culture, etc. If these things do not exist, the city can create them. Provo did this with the upcoming recreation center. But whatever money is going to the schools is still not enough.

If there is any doubt the wisdom of this, I would again cite Glendora. While I know that contrasting it with Provo may be like comparing apples to oranges, many of the things Provo wants Glendora already has. Despite much steeper competition, stores in downtown Glendora are doing better than those in downtown Provo. The entire area doesn’t feel run down and slummy. The houses are well-kept. The people more prosperous. (While eating at a charming sidewalk cafe in Glendora this last weekend I was surprised at how much more foot traffic the area had, compared to Provo, and how the cars parked along the street were clearly those of established residents as opposed to beater college student vehicles, like the ones I see in Provo. Provo doesn’t need fewer college students, it needs more people willing like Glendora’s who are willing to invest in the community and consume it’s products.) In essence, Glendora invested heavily in one area, and is reaping the rewards of having attracted a desirable population in all areas.

I don’t want Provo to become like Glendora. I don’t want to live in Glendora (not by a long shot). But like so many communities in the U.S., Glendora offers an example of (a staunchly conservative) community pooling together, sacrificing, and working hard for the greater good. Until people in Provo do the same, our city will always lag behind.

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Provo Post 5: Young People in Provo

I’ve considered giving up on this series, because I’ve been getting discouraged by Provo in the last couple of weeks. Frankly, the petty political bickering and short-sightedness in the city sickens me. I fell in love with Provo as a student and recent grad, and now living in Provo as a permanent resident I’m beginning to fall deeply out of love with it.

Nevertheless, I press on:

How can Provo get more young people — especially educated young people who are starting families — to settle in the city? These people are a key to economic growth ‚ or even just stability, and yet few of them stick around. Having lived in Provo for a number of years, I’ve watched wave after wave of my friends move away. Even people from Utah have typically left. That bodes very badly for the city.

On a related note, Wikipedia projects only 7% growth in the city between 2000 and 2010. Though the population has increased, that is the smallest augmentation Provo has seen since 1880.

These are serious problems for the city. If Provo doesn’t have sufficient growth, it’ll become an even more polarized community filled exclusively with college students and the old people who hate college students. And nobody wants to live in a place like that. (Though, judging by the attitudes I see some people express online about Provo, it seems like that is what they want.) So here are a few issues that plague Provo:

Jobs: The biggest reason people leave, in my experience, is the job market. I was literally about to leave myself, because I couldn’t find a job, before I was hired at the Daily Herald. Sadly, Provo has few jobs, and many of those aren’t the kind that ambitious and excited new college graduates are looking for. Provo needs to create more jobs, especially those requiring highly skilled workers. And the so-called “free market” isn’t going to do this on it’s own. Instead, Provo needs to actively create an environment that provides economic incentives to young people and the kinds of places that employ them. Yes, this is easier said than done, but I haven’t seen or heard any public discussion about how this can happen.

Schools: I have a lot of respect for Provo’s schools because everyone I’ve ever met who attended them was a great person. Unfortunately, Provo’s schools look terrible on paper. Utah gets some of the worst rankings in the country when it comes to public education, and Provo doesn’t do great even compared to other districts throughout the state. As evidence of this fact, I cite the existence of the entire Highland-Alpine-Cedar Hills area. Several years ago my family moved from California to Cedar Hills. My dad got a job in Provo, but they chose to live in Cedar Hills in large part because of the school district. Huge swaths of those cities are filled with people who have similar stories. I don’t have kids and this issue isn’t a big deal to me personally, but the economic success of Provo hinges on improving it’s schools, which are a huge deal for anyone considering (re-)locating themselves, their family, or their business in Utah.

Social Environment: Who hasn’t heard someone slamming Provo? “Provo is lame,” people say. “Provo has nothing to do,” they complain. (Ironically, many people coming to Provo hail from vapid suburbs where there is significantly less to do, but that is a topic for another post.) Whether these allegations are true or not, Provo definitely suffers from an image problem. It’s one of a clean but boring city, where there is little (political, ethnic, social, etc.) diversity. I would argue that there is a surprising amount of diversity in Provo (being a crime reporter has made that apparent to me), but Provo needs to work on its branding and image.

I think Provo’s image problem is epitomized by the dilapidated downtown, which why I’ve been so excited by Mayor Curtis’s interest in revitalization. Maybe some of Provo’s more libertarian-leaning residents want to sit at home all the time, clutching their guns and hording food for the apocalypse, but I believe that young adults (not only college students, but potential permanent residents as well) want exciting public spaces and community engagement. They want a city they can show off — for its visuals, it’s cultural offerings, it’s economic opportunities — to their family and friends. In other words, one way to lure new people to become contributing members of the community is to create a community that is vibrant, interactive, and appealing. Don’t hope for new people who will bring a community with them, build a community that people want to join.

Which brings me back to my first paragraph. I came to love Provo for a lot of reasons. I like the weather (seasons! but more temperate than many places). I like the old buildings. I love living in the midst of a student community. I was inspired by businesses — Velour, Muse Music, Communal, Lady Danburry, The Covey Center, etc. — that are run by passionate people who have chosen to locate in the city, sometimes against long odds. Without these places I, and others like me, would not have decided to live here for any amount of time. If they stopped existing, I would (or will) leave.

I’m similarly excited about upcoming projects. The rec center, the opt-out recycling program and the bike plans are the types of things that will attract people to Provo.

The ultimate point here, I think, is that Provo needs to invest in it’s future if it wants to attract young people. That doesn’t mean some sort of abstract, spiritual investment with all our hearts and minds (though that is nice, too). Rather, it means a real, physical, monetary investment on the part of those already in the community.

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Provo Post 4: Can We Be a Winning Team?

Question: Why do some sports teams win year after year?
Answer: Obviously, because they have the resources to hire and train the best players.

While writing my last post, I happened on a distinction that I hope is a major theme in this series: exhorting verses incentivizing. Think about it. When a pro sports team like the Lakers or the Yankees wants a major player, they don’t just harp on how great the team is. Instead, they prove to the player that there is a direct personal benefit to be won by coming to the new team. Usually that benefit is a fat paycheck.

The lesson, I think, is that if Provo is not (yet) as successful, exciting, hip, or whatever as we want it to be, the incentives aren’t (yet) sweet enough.

Provo is definitely getting better at attracting talent. New businesses are opening, the airport has gone commercial, old businesses are expanding, etc., etc. If Provo wasn’t showing a lot of promise right now I don’t think I would have been inspired to blog about the city.

But Provo needs to do a better job. Do we want to be the Los Angeles Lakers, or the Sacramento Kings? Daily I look at the handful of decent business on State Street in Orem and wonder why they would choose to be in the midst of sleazy payday loan centers and (what look like) meth labs, when they could be in Provo. Before my current job, I worked at a successful, very cool technology company. The only downside was it’s location, in an ugly building on an ugly street in American Fork. Similarly Adobe is opening up a new facility, near Point of the Mountain. Why there? (Proximity to the prison? All new Adobe employees will hang-glide to work?)

Obviously reasons behind location choices are diverse and complex, but each time a business chooses to locate elsewhere it’s a loss for Provo. To counter this, Provo should actively court and lobby businesses from both in and out of the state, enticing and incentivizing them to come to Provo. (Perhaps something like this already exists? Maybe some sort of lobbying committee organized or run by the city government? I hope so, but I haven’t heard about it. Also, the gains of such an effort should far outweigh the costs.)

Of course, enticing strong businesses to come to the city is fairly obvious. Who doesn’t want that? But equally important is getting residents to embrace those businesses, as well as the incentives offered to them. That could include land deals, fee or license waivers, rent control, or any number of actions the city could take to make Provo more economically and culturally attractive. “Whatever it takes” could be the slogan. Some of these actions may not be initially popular, but they will have long-term benefits.

I was reminded of the importance residents embracing incentivizing Saturday night, when I was at the grocery store around 11:50 p.m. As I poked around for cheeses, an employee got on the PA and announced that alcohol sales would stop at midnight. I don’t drink and had forgotten that such a policy exists in Provo, but as soon as I heard the announcement I realized it was a perfect example of a law that hamstrings Provo’s development. On top of Utah’s generally byzantine liquor laws (which are widely seen in the hospitality industry as economically damaging), Provo has additional rules that not only reduce local stores’ sales tax, but generally make life a pain for anyone who isn’t an orthodox Mormon.

The point is that if Provo residents want to become more prosperous, have more cultural offerings, and enjoy a higher standard of living (which I believe they do), we need to make the city more inviting to diverse people with diverse values. Related to alcohol sales on Sunday, that survey the city recently conducted returned several comments about getting rid of the bars and smoke shops in downtown. Fair enough, I guess, but those are apparently successful businesses. They generate sales tax revenue. They bring people into the city who might not otherwise come. They make it more diverse and ensure that downtown isn’t completely empty.

Whether or not new businesses coming to Provo have anything to do with alcohol or other things local Mormons avoid, the point is that prosperity hinges on diversity. Returning to the sports analogy, when a team courts a star player they don’t worry much about the player’s background, tattoos, or even scandals. They worry about what that player can do on the court or field. Having strange policies (or even a subtle cultural leaning) that demonized some backgrounds, body art, or scandals would doom a team because the best players couldn’t join.

Likewise, the city must make itself appealing to more than the usual crowd. Residents have to realize that the presence of people with different values — who dress and look differently, who patronize different kinds of entertainment, who consume different foods and drinks — is actually beneficial to them for so many reasons.

In other words, incentivizing means compromising, both of which produce prosperity.

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Provo Post 3: Bookstores, Art Galleries and Other Unsustainable Ideas

Here’s the short version of this post: As much as we’d all like downtown Provo to be filled with cool art galleries, bistros, cafes, bookstores and other stuff (that’s definitely what I want, at least), I believe it’s currently premature to focus much energy on cultivating new establishments in that vein. Downtown probably has as many (or more, maybe) of these types of businesses as it can sustain.
Here’s the longer version:

My desire to blog about Provo was kicked started by a recent survey the city conducted. As most people in Provo (should) know, the city is trying to revitalize the downtown area, and the survey focused on what people want. Here’s a quote from the comments section:

“New small biz retail, unique eats, urban living space, cafe’s and bookstores,

cultural events and artspace, independent film house and sundance film festival venue”

And another:

“I would love to see a chain restaurant where Los Hermanos was evicted from

(like Olive Garden) and a good bookstore such as Barnes and Noble or Borders. “

I pulled these two comments because the both mention bookstores, which was a recurring theme in the survey.

First off, I find these comments ironic because until very recently, downtown Provo had two bookstores. Also, a new bookstore just barely opened up on Center Street. But aside from betraying a lack of familiarity with downtown Provo (why are you taking the survey if you don’t even know what stores are there?), the comments reveal that a lot of people want downtown to be an exiting, cosmopolitan, urbane place. In addition to the comments about bookstores, I’ve heard/read people frequently express a desire to have more art galleries, cool restaurants/cafes, unique retailers, and other fun businesses.
I count myself among those who would like to see Provo filled with that kind of business. But after living in Provo for eight continuous years, I have become convinced that a downtown filled with these kinds of businesses is currently unsustainable. Why? Well, most obviously, because they keep opening, and almost as fast they keep closing.
But beside that, downtown Provo already seems to have reached it’s saturation point with regard to cool businesses. There are a bunch of restaurants. A couple of (or three) great music venues. Two bars. Every once in a while a new consumer business will open (Gloria’s Little Italy, for example) but surprisingly often these new businesses are merely filling a niche that was only recently vacated. (Ottavio’s closed shortly before Gloria’s opened, for example. Similarly, a new night club is planned for downtown, which will fill the niche recently vacated by the closure of Atchafalaya.)
Relatedly, there seems to be little or no market for some kinds of businesses. Bookstores are cool and I’d love to sit around sipping fancy drinks and reading newspapers in them, but the reality is that they’re going the way of the dinosaur. Even big box chains are not immune to this. The reality is that not a lot of people buy books, and those who do increasingly use the internet to get them.
“Small biz”, to quote from the survey comment above, has a similar problem. There have been — and still are to a lesser extent — very unique retailers in downtown Provo. For example, I occasionally purchased clothing from Coal Umbrella and Mode Boutique. So did a lot of people. But it wasn’t enough to keep these places in business. Things like art galleries seem to have even more trouble. Every time a new one opens up I get really excited, and every time one closes I get a depressed. Can’t we just all choose to patronize awesome places, and then Provo will finally be really cool?
Unfortunately, no. A few committed people just don’t have the money, time and resources to do that. Wanting people to patronize cool businesses is not enough. I, my friends, and people like me can’t afford to constantly buy things at galleries, eat at nice restaurants, etc. Also, telling people to patronize cool businesses is not enough. I remember casually overhearing someone at the old Sego Gallery complain that people just weren’t supportive enough of the arts. I agree, but complaining about it won’t change that fact. Behavior is rarely changed by exhorting — it’s changed by incentivizing.
Ultimately, I think this is a good illustration of what I was talking about in my last post: population density. I think the ulimate thing we need in downtown Provo are more consumers. Sure, broad cultural changes can and should take place. People in Provo should become more supportive of independent businesses, local artisans, and the arts generally. But those changes will take time and will likely not come soon enough to adequately sustain what we currently have, or inspire new ideas.
So, while I laud individual efforts to start new businesses in downtown Provo, as I think about the larger efforts I believe we (individuals, entrepreneurs, the city, etc.) ought to focus on increasing demand for a revitalized downtown, not on increasing the supply of things in downtown. After all, supply without demand in downtown Provo (e.g. real estate and commercial space) is what gave us the relative ghost town we have today.

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Provo Post 2: Downtown population and an underlying assumption

Not long ago I was involved in a discussion about rail service linking Provo to Salt Lake City. I’m excited for it, but during the discussion a couple of people mentioned how they had discussed the issue with economics professors who believe that it is an economically unjustified project. Their reasoning was essentially that population density is too low in Provo (and Utah County) for the rail service to be worth the cost. Basically, they think not enough people will ride it, because there simply aren’t enough people. (They contrasted Utah with the East Coast and Europe.)

Economics isn’t the only lens through which to view the world, of course, and there are other reasons to build rail lines. Also, I’m no economist and I was hearing all this in a debate (while arguing against it, actually).

But I find it persuasive and, more importantly, a useful way to think about many of the problems plaguing downtown Provo. Think about it: if population density in Provo was comparable to, say, Boston, there would be more potential consumers in a very small area. If it was comparable to Paris, all the better.

Obviously higher population density comes with its own challenges, but it seems like one of the primary reasons downtown Provo struggles is that there simply aren’t enough people to sustain a lot of consumer-oriented businesses. To make matters (economically) worse, the conservative, LDS culture of Provo hardly encourages residents to living in downtown to lead extravagant, spendy lifestyles.

As a result, the population is flung out in a way that divides consumers. Some people go to the Riverwoods. Some to the malls. Some to American Fork. And none of these areas truly become community gather places, and none really thrive.

This problem is compounded in downtown Provo because it is not, in fact, centrally located. Even commuting consumers are only marginally likely to visit it. Though it is the biggest urban center in Utah Valley, it is actually several miles south of the more affluent communities — Highland, Alpine, Cedar Hills, etc. — that could actually patronize downtown business. I have no love of these communities, but they generally have more disposable income than communities in south Utah County. And unfortunately it’s often easier for north county residents to go to American Fork, Thanksgiving Point, etc.

All this is to say one thing: among all the solutions to solve downtown Provo’s problems, gradually increasing population density around the area is the most obvious to me. The logistics of doing that are beyond the scope of this post, but as I discuss Provo, the need for higher density population will be a major underlying assumption. Some posts will try to justify that assumption. Others will simply take it for granted that Provo cannot have a vibrant, urban center smack in the middle of a sleepy, suburban-style community.

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