Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Chain Gang*: REI

I have one more suggestion for a downtown Provo retailer: REI.

The fact that we don’t already have an REI in Provo, or Utah County, is astounding to me. It’s even more surprising than the fact that we don’t have a Guitar Center, and it’s an even more obvious choice for downtown. Why?

For starters, Provo, like other Wasatch Front cities, enjoys amazing geography for outdoor recreation. Provo Canyon is minutes from the freeway and the airport. Once in the canyon, visitors can rock climb, backpack, base jump, camp, hunt, ski (down hill or cross country) ice climb, and engage in a slew of other activities. Provo also has other spectacular outdoors areas — Rock Canyon for example — that make it literally unrivaled by other regions of the US.

I don’t know if those of us living in Provo realize just how unique our geography is. I know I’m constantly gaining a new appreciation for it. On a recent trip through Denver, for example, I was surprised by how far away that city’s mountains are from the central urban area. Boulder, a city more comparable to Provo that is outdoorsy and home to an REI, also doesn’t have geography as conducive to outdoor activity as ours. (Ann Arbor, Michigan, another town of comparable size and demographics, also has an REI.)

Yet, somehow, Colorado has a reputation as an outdoor recreation paradise, despite the fact that its major cities require long drives to get to significant mountains. By contrast, I can drive from my house for literally 90 seconds and be at a major natural rock climbing and backpacking site. I could bike to camping and rock climbing sites — true outdoors locations, not just city parks — in 10 minutes. The same is true for all of the hundreds of thousands of people living in Utah County.

The point is that Provo could sustain a profitable REI store. The city has exactly the kind of geography for which REI sells gear. Add to that the fact that Utahns have a relatively high participation rate in things like the Boy Scouts and LDS “trek,” and Utah County starts to look like the perfect spot for the retailer.

More importantly, from the perspective of REI, a Provo store makes sense. The size and demographics of the city are similar to cities like Boulder and Ann Arbor, and indeed at half a million people, our metro area is much larger than other places with existing REIs. The sizable population is young, fit, and loves the outdoors. That’s a profitable combination.

Whether city leaders know it or not, Provo already is competing against other Utah County cities (American Fork and Orem) for an REI, with the winner likely being which ever city first carves out an adequate space and courts the company. The area’s geography, coming population increase, and relatively educated population — and therefore relatively prosperous population — suggest that at some point REI will arrive. We just have to decide if we want it in (downtown) Provo, or in a hideous strip mall next to the Olive Garden in American Fork.

*this post is called “The Chain Gang” because it is part of a series where I try to think of chain stores that could come to downtown Provo without destroying its character. If you’re interested in reading the first post of the series, it can be found here.

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Filed under biking, construction, Development, Downtown, driving, economics, mountains, Uncategorized

All Aboard for High Speed Rail

I just read this article, which states that a Utah state senator is interested in the idea of building a high speed railway. I love this idea, as I think many people do. And like many people, I fear that it’s a long shot.

But it could actually happen, if enough people expressed the political will to make it happen. This is one of the many reasons I am not a libertarian: because the government can and should undertake massive, monumental projects that benefit society for multiple generations. Moreover, government — which is really just all of us collectively — should do the things that private enterprise cannot. No one corporation, or group of corporations, includes everyone. But our government does, it is simply us after all, and that’s why it naturally can spearhead this sort of project.

I think the biggest impediment right now for a project like this is public awareness and prioritization. In other words, I doubt many people (in Utah) even think of high speed rail as a social or political issue. Others many not think it’s a big deal. (My evidence is that this topic almost never comes up in my personal discussions, and that no progress is being made. I realize that evidence is far from definitive.)

So how, specifically, could we make this happen? We could lobby our legislators. We could drum up support among our friends and neighbors. We could blog about it. We could question every elected official and potential elected official about their stance. In other words, we should make this an issue. Let’s talk about and drum up some buzz for high speed rail; it’ll be the first step to making it a reality.

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Filed under commuting, construction, Development, travel, Uncategorized, utah

Historic Preservation

Here’s an interesting essay from The Atlantic Cities on historic preservation and sustainability.  It doesn’t come to any easy conclusions, but I think it’s a useful series of thoughts for people in Provo who care about preserving the city’s historic buildings.

When I first came to Provo, I was outraged every time any historic building was torn down. I’m still ineffably disappointed with the city about what happened to the Hotel Roberts and the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

Yet I’m actually pleased with the recent demolition of the Roasted Artichoke building, which was so dilapidated it clearly couldn’t have done the community much good. (Though I’m disappointed with the building owner for allowing it to fall into such disrepair.)

The point, in any case, is that preservation and progress — sometimes in the form of new structures — are both important for growth. In any case, go read the essay linked to at the beginning of this post.

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Guitar Center vs. The Great Salt Lake Guitar Company, etc.

Have you ever gone to a big city and visited an area filled with many of one type of store? Perhaps you went to a “garment district,” for example, or even a Chinatown. Even smaller cities like Provo take this approach, clumping groups of restaurants together. What’s the point of grouping all these like businesses together? Convenience and mutual benefit, I’d argue. Symbiosis.

Since my last post I’ve had a few conversations with people (online and in real life) about how a Guitar Center would affect the music stores already in downtown Provo. I’ll skip how I think it’ll impact Bill Harris because I think that Guitar Center is the least of that store’s problems. But The Great Salt Lake Guitar Co. (GSLG) truly is a Provo gem. I wouldn’t want to live in Provo if there weren’t unique mom-and-pop businesses like that. (In the ideal world there would only be stores like GSLG, but the current downtown is proof that that isn’t yet possible.)

However, GSLG and Guitar Center are not really competitors, no matter where they’re relatively located. For one, GSLG specializes in custom built acoustic guitars. Guitar Center, on the other hand, carries name-brand acoustic guitars and furthermore makes most of its money on its many other products — electric guitars, primarily, as well as band and DJ gear, keyboards, etc. GSLG and Guitar Center also cater to clientele with totally different financial resources; my understanding is that GSLG doesn’t really have “entry-level” guitars for under a couple hundreds dollars (if they do, they need better marketing). Buying a guitar at Guitar Center is like picking up sweat pants at Wal Mart, while buying a guitar at GSLG is like purchasing a suit at Brooks Brothers. (Note: Guitar Center does carry many fine products.)

As I mentioned on Facebook, I actually think that a Guitar Center would help GSLG, because the former would expose new musicians to the latter. And to fear that Guitar Center would put GSLG out of business is like worrying that a Pizza Hut would drive Communal out of business. In reality, putting a Guitar Center next door would simply create a kind of mini “music district.”

That type of district is something that Provo could benefit from. Right now, everyone in the state has to drive to Salt Lake County to get a decent selection of music gear at a decent price (I have personally done this many times, and know dozens of people who do the same all the time). If a Guitar Center went into Provo, it would suddenly become the most convenient location for everyone from Point of the Mountain down through central Utah. It would help make downtown Provo what it now only aspires to be: an inter-city destination. In other words, this isn’t just about making Provo a nice place, it’s about turning it into the second metropolitan epicenter of Utah, drawing people (consumers) from all over the state.

As I indicated in my original post about bringing chains to downtown Provo, it’s a mixed bag and it’d be better – culturally, financially, etc. — to have only local business. That’s my dream. But local businesses generally do better in thriving areas, not on blighted streets like those we currently have. So in the end, stores like Guitar Center won’t just be benign neighbors to existing businesses. Rather, Guitar Center et al. will save them.

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Filed under buy local, community, Development, Downtown, Provo, urban

The Chain Gang: Guitar Center

A great candidate for a downtown anchor business would be Guitar Center. Though many of the city’s middle aged, hyper conservative paranoids don’t know it, Provo actually has an amazing — and nationally recognized — music scene. Several bands have recently been signed to major record labels, and some of the most stalwart businesses in downtown are actually music venues. I don’t know why the city and the citizens don’t make more of the music scene, which is easily one of the most entrepreneurial segments of the local economy. They’re frankly throwing away economic and cultural opportunities by not embracing it more, though that’s a topic for another post (or many other posts).

But despite the amazing music scene, it’s actually difficult to purchase a decent guitar in Provo. Or a fairly priced set of guitar strings, drum sticks, or a plethora of other equipment. There are some stores. I typically go to Bill Harris Music, for example, due to its central location. There also are some stores in Orem (Van Wagenen Drums and Guns, for an extremely sketchy example).

But none of these stores really carry decent brands, and their prices are generally exorbitant. I enjoy Bill Harris because going in there is always a folksy adventure, but I typically can’t find a Fender or Gibson guitar in there. Drum sticks at Bill Harris are many times more than they would be online (an unfair comparison for any brick and mortar store, I know, but still). In fact, Bill Harris’ store’s entire business model seems doomed, as sad as it makes me to say it.

At the same time, Provo has a young population, filled with teenagers and college students. Though I lack quantitative evidence, my sense also is that the per capita number of musicians is higher in Provo than other parts of the county.

So why don’t we have a decent music store? Why are the only Guitar Centers in Utah located up in Salt Lake County?

Guitar Center seems like the kind of store that eventually will arrive in Utah County, the only question is where (and when, of course). If company executives are left to choose a location on their own, I could see them running the numbers through a computer and choosing American Fork. But downtown Provo is an infinitely better place for the store. The music scene, the demographics, the walkability , etc. all suggest that there would be high demand in that area.

Guitar Center would be a positive anchor because it also potentially generates a lot of foot traffic. Because the company also owns the Musician’s Friend catalog, Guitar Center locations sort of run on the Apple Store business model, serving as much as product showrooms as actual retail locations. The result is that more people visit a Guitar Center than actually plan on immediately purchasing a product.

Honestly, bringing in a Guitar Center seems like such an obvious choice I can’t see why we don’t already have one. But if we wait too long, we never will.

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It’s Just Business

Here’s some good news related to the Utah economy: this article states that Utah ranked first for business. Great. Now if Provo would just get some good businesses into downtown.

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Manufacturing Success

Here is an article on how a small town in Mississippi won a Toyota plant within its city limits. The article is interesting and discusses the complexity of the process, but for Provo, it raises another question altogether:

Do we have someone trying to bring manufacturing jobs to town?

I’m not aware of anyone working to that end. In fact, though I’ve heard a lot about improving and developing the economy, I’ve never heard anyone ever mention the idea of trying to bring manufacturing jobs to town.

However, the city really should consider increasing its efforts to win manufacturing jobs. For one thing, much like the city in the article, Provo has a history with manufacturing. Throughout much of the 20th century Geneva Steel gave the region a more blue-collar population than it has today.

More importantly, Provo shouldn’t put all its eggs in one basket. Obviously the city wants innovative, high tech businesses. Provo has both a highly educated as well as a young population, so it seems natural that the economy would be largely white collar.

But manufacturing would diversify the local economy. It would provide jobs.

I doubt Provo would be opposed to welcoming something like a Toyota plant. But the real issue here is whether or not the city (and, by extension, the state) is actively pursuing these opportunities. As the article points out, they’re competitive and not easy to win.

Provo, however, has the space, the history, and the resources to make increased manufacturing a reality. The only question is if the city has the will.

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Lemons into Lemonade: Or, Goodbye Nordstrom

Today came the sad announcement that Orem is losing Nordstrom. I write “sad” not because I typically purchased things at Nordstrom, but because losing a large employer is never good for a region. Also, for an area hoping to have an up-and-coming economy, losing a high end retailer doesn’t bode well.

But Orem is an unfortunately shabby town with or without a Nordstrom, and if Provo is smart they will use this turn of events as a marvelous opportunity to grab businesses from a  r̶i̶v̶a̶l̶ neighbor.

The Nordstrom closure announcement seems like the proverbial nail in the coffin for the increasingly troubled mall. The old wing that used be anchored by Mervyn’s is struggling these days, and feels sort of creepy. Now, and without Nordstrom, a full two thirds of the mall will probably take on that feeling. And though the mall will likely limp along for years, recovery seems exceedingly unlikely.*

The result is that the mall’s current retailers will probably leave at some point. That’s not what I want, it’s just what I strongly believe will happen over time. Orem, Provo and Utah County can respond by, among other things,

A) Letting these store struggle long enough to convince their parent companies that Utah County isn’t a place they want to be

B) Allowing places like American Fork or the Riverwoods to snatch them up

C) Persuading them to come to downtown Provo.

Obviously, I think option C is the best one.

Basically, everything that surrounded Nordstrom should be relocated to downtown Provo. Banana Republic, White House Black Market (or whatever that store is called), the jewelry retailers, Eddie Bauer, etc. Most of these stores don’t have locations in Provo’s own sad and failing mall. With Nordstrom leaving, a convincing salesman could and should persuade them to come to a renovated downtown Provo.

And renovation is key. My vision for downtown has always been incremental, simply because I can’t think of who would invest the millions and millions of dollars needed to basically turn it into a better, historical version of the Riverwoods.

However, the malls are going to die, maybe not sooner but definitely later. Utah Valley, and Provo in particular can let all the mall stores leave permanently, or it can bring them into downtown. Provo needs to act fast, invest funds and use this opportunity to make lemonade out of Nordstrom’s closing.

*(Contrary to Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce President Steve Densley, I can’t imagine another store of even slightly similar caliber going into that spot. Simply wanting something to happen has little bearing on reality, after all. Also, here’s an interesting read about where malls generally are headed, with some interesting links as well.)

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Filed under Development, Downtown, economics, Uncategorized, urban

The Chain Gang: IHOP

The chains that Provo brings to downtown ought to fill an empty niche, create a new one, and/or draw more people to the area. They should be commercial anchors, and ones that have a generally positive reputation across many demographics (so, no McDonalds, for example). It’s also worth mentioning that it would be much cooler and financially beneficial to the community to have locally owned businesses come in. The reason to bring in a chain, however, is because name recognition will draw new customers to the area, and because chains seem better at weathering the economic roller coaster associated with opening up. Or, put bluntly, downtown businesses keep opening and closing due to bad management, and a chain would put the area on many people’s destination list.

One chain that fits the bill is IHOP. The huge breakfast vendor is a decent restaurant that handily beats its nearest rival, Denny’s. Though IHOP isn’t my favorite place to eat breakfast, I enjoy it when I find myself there, and I don’t know many people who assertively dislike it.

Just as importantly, IHOP fills a niche in Provo. Few of the many restaurants in the area serve breakfast, either in the morning or otherwise, and most of the ones that do serve breakfast do a bad job of it. (Guru’s, I’m looking at you. Step it up.)

In other words, IHOP wouldn’t dramatically compete with other downtown businesses. Sure, someone might choose IHOP over dinner-fare restaurants like Gloria’s Little Italy, but the added diversity of a breakfast food joint would likely bring new customers to downtown, thereby providing added exposure to existing businesses.

Downtown Provo also needs a restaurant that stays open 24 hours a day, or at least very late. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to events (usually concerts) and afterward gone out for food. Typically, I’ve ended up at Village Inn. For awhile there, the cafe at the hospital was a popular choice. But neither of these places are convenient or adjacent to Utah County’s nightlife epicenter.

Over the years, a few mom and pop operations have tried to cater to the demand for late-night food and sociality. But all of these places seemingly had no business plan whatsoever, and they have all gone out of business (hence, my call for chains like IHOP). And lest people think that the only patrons of a 24 hour downtown restaurant would be scraggly college students, I recently drove by the IHOP, Village Inn and Denny’s in Orem late at night, and they all had many people inside.

IHOP is a franchise, so to make this idea a reality the city really just needs someone with a wad of cash, though admittedly a very big wad. (I believe sites currently exist that meet the companies location requirements.) Of course, there are IHOPs in Orem and Springville, but downtown Provo’s location suggests to me that it could be a better spot for the restaurant than either of those cities. With the LDS Tabernacle Temple now on its way — bringing my chain-loving Mormon brothers and sisters to the area throughout the day — an IHOP seems like almost a no-brainer.

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Filed under Development, Downtown, economics, Food, restaurant, Uncategorized, urban

Bijou Market

Just a quick FYI: The Bijou Market is coming to downtown Provo this weekend. In case you don’t want to click on those links, it’s Friday and Saturday, in a historical building located at 116 West Center Street.

True be told, I haven’t ever been to the Bijou Market. But I know people who have and they’ve always said good things. My impression is that it’s sort of like the Beehive Bazaar, which I’ve been too nearly every time (except for that time they held it at Thanksgiving Point).

Anyway, I will be attending the Bijou Market this year and encourage all to do the same.

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