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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Filed under Development, Downtown, economics, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Development, Downtown, Uncategorized

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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