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.