Monthly Archives: December 2011

Utah vs. Arizona

I flew to San Diego for Christmas, and had a two hour layover in Phoenix. I’ve made the same trip many times, but it’s remarkable how spending six months reading about urbanism can change a perspective.

Phoenix has long baffled me. While many major cities are situated along major waterways or other advantageous geographical features, Phoenix sits deep in a landlocked desert. My one visit to the city as an adult left me with the impression that it was a miserable, sprawling city, borrowing from the worst elements of Las Vegas and Southern California hyper development. (Here, here, and here is some additional reading on the city.)

So why is Phoenix a big city? More specifically, why is it bigger and more financially successful than the urban corridor along the Wasatch Front (or, the Ogden-SLC-Provo metro areas)?

There are a lot of historical, political and other reasons for Phoenix’s success — and I wouldn’t want Utah to be plagued by the kind of sprawl that has made Phoenix miserable — but flying over both regions this weekend, one thing stood out: space.

Whereas Phoenix looks like a big, sprawling expanse of light at night, the Wasatch Front looks more like a ribbon. Obviously, this says a lot about the financial situations of these regions; Phoenix’s success has allowed it to grow (or, sprawl) more than cities in Utah. But it also raises a sort of chicken-and-ege scenario. After all, cheap and fast construction in places like Phoenix were one of the things that bolstered the economy there, and then laid them low.

In other words, Phoenix’s geography was ideal for sprawl, which fueled a kind of economic growth.

That didn’t happen in Utah — or rather, it happened on a much smaller scale. As a result, we’ve had less quick economic growth, but now have the potential for more dense, sustainable communities. Today, our region looks like a narrow ribbon of light when viewed from above at night. What might have seemed like an economic disadvantage five years ago, now means we have a chance to avoid the mistakes of Phoenix — both architecturally and economically.

Unfortuanately, Utah cities can’t really look to wonderful places like Seattle as examples of growth. Our geography simply is too different. However, Phoenix offers an interesting example of how to achieve commercial success, as well as how not to build a phyiscal infrastructure.

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Things Downtown Provo Doesn’t Need

A few posts ago, I wrote about chain stores Provo could and should bring to downtown. However, just as important as courting new businesses is thinking about businesses that won’t help downtown, and that won’t survive longterm.

The best candidate I can think of are bookstores and similar types of retailers that sell mass produced merchandise that can be easily picked up online. This Slate article is an excellent explanation of why, explaining that local book stores are inefficient, pricey, anti-literary, anti-consumer, and not all that local anyway. As sad as it is, bookstores aren’t going to bring in a lot of money in sales tax, they’re probably not going to survive long-term, and at least in Provo, they don’t have much of a history of hosting fascinating literary events.

Similarly, I don’t shop at record stores, electronics stores, etc. Though I lament that our society has made these things obsolete, it nevertheless has. The chain retailers I mentioned previously on this blog were chosen, in part, because they have a different business model wherein they use physical spaces to show off products, rather than necessarily sell them.

The point is that downtown needs businesses that can’t easily be moved onto the internet. That’s why it has become the food epicenter of Utah Valley, and why it also includes a lot of office space: neither of those things can be done online.

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Provo City Slogan

This article lists new slogans, good and bad, from cities across the country. The article offers some brief commentary and a few links to expand on the discussion.

The topic is relevant because Provo is currently working on a new slogan, among other things. A recent survey allowed people to vote on options, though I don’t know where in the process we are. None of the options in the survey were great, but online somewhere I saw someone suggest “pioneering,” which I thought spoke adequately to both the past and the future.

Anyway, next year we could end up on a list like the one above. Let’s hope it’s as a good example.

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Sears, Malls, and Consolidation

One of the top headlines Tuesday morning was that Sears is closing up to 120 stores (including Kmarts).

The company hasn’t yet released the list of locations to be shuttered, but I think we should assume that Provo’s store in the Towne Center Mall will be one of them. If it isn’t closing now, it surely will be in the not-too-distant future.

This should be obvious to anyone who has visited the store lately. Despite being located in a mall, the store feels like the Wal-Mart that time forgot. Its a mess, and there are almost never any people inside. A few weeks ago Laura had to pick up some supplies for school and we went to Sears. Though it was the middle of the busiest shopping season of the year, we only saw five other customers. The two sales associates that we encountered were actually exercising on elliptical machines. It was bizarre.

The merchandise at Sears is also terrible. Either it’s available elsewhere for cheaper, or it extremely low quality. I once tried to find a sweat shirt there and discovered that all their clothing — which should be the bread and butter of a mall department store — appears to have been assembled by blind apes. While trying on clothes, I could feel myself developing body image issues with every glance in the mirror.

The point is that Sears is a company in ruin, and the Provo location is a particularly bad iteration of the fallen giant. I cannot fathom how the Provo location could be profitable, and analysts are not optimistic about the company’s future.

The point is that the store can’t last, and Provo needs to be thinking about its exit strategy.

Probably the most obvious strategy is to consolidate Utah County’s two malls. University Mall is about to lose its second anchor — Nordstrom — leaving it with one department store — Macy’s — and two empty anchor spaces. Provo’s Towne Center Mall currently has all three anchor spaces filled, but the down-market Sears is struggling and likely to vacate at some point.

So Macy’s ought to relocate to the Towne Center Mall. Orem officials would hate this idea, but without two anchors the University Mall has essentially failed. This plan would be a overall benefit to the county as a whole, as it would create one really strong mall, as opposed to what we have now: two extremely sad and depressing retail spaces that appear destined for ruin.

This plan should be an easy sell to Macy’s. Provo’s mall is located next to the freeway and has high visibility, and is more modern. Relocating to Provo would also give Macy’s the benefit of avoiding isolation in Orem.

Relocating Macy’s won’t happen automatically, however, and city and commercial leaders need to actively work to make this a reality. I’d argue that even if Provo’s Sears isn’t put on the chopping block, city leaders should ask to close it; the store can’t be generating much sales tax and it’s frankly dragging then entire mall down.

Perhaps trying to save either of these malls is useless. Malls, after all, are generally considered to be in decline and both of the ones in Utah County were alarmingly vacant during the holiday season. But with aggressive planning and consolidation, we should yet be able to squeeze a fair amount of life out of these behemoths.

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Filed under Development, economics, Uncategorized, utah

Have a Provo-cative Christmas

Christmas is nigh and in Provo the season has led to some amazing, unique holiday music. Here are a few links to listen to and/or download fantastic, local holiday songs. All of this music is free, though some of it asks for a donation. Just check the page for details.

This is a 12 track compilation from a bunch of really cool local artists.

This track was produced by my friends and former Muse Music operators Jake and Melissa Haws.

And finally, a recording of “You’re a Mean One” by Provo stalwarts John-Ross Boyce & His Troubles.

Enjoy, and come back in a few days — specifically after Christmas and after I return from a weekend in San Diego — for more posts on Provo.

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Provo’s Reputation: Part 2

Earlier this I was in Seattle and a seemingly very cool person found out I live in Utah. That person’s response: “you seem way too cool to live in Utah.” Significantly, I’ve had almost the exact same exchange with people from Salt Lake when they find out I live in Provo.

Most of these people are well-meaning and so I accept what they probably mean as a compliment (though my gut reaction is always to say “you seem too cool to have such a myopic misconception about Provo/Utah and such a bloated sense of self importance.)

The reality, however, is that Provo does a great job at attracting some people to the city, but and a much worse job at attracting others, namely young professionals interested in a vibrant social scene. That split needs to change both because growth is vital for development, and because diversity is vital for prosperity.

It’s worth mentioning that there are people in Provo who don’t want to improve the city’s reputation. They take seriously ideas about being a “peculiar people” and about being a bastion of “morals” in a so-called decadent society. Though I don’t take issue with those concepts in theory, taken to the extreme they will isolate any city and eventually destroy development. People can be “moral” even in a diverse culture, and so the most hardline conservatives in Provo — who want the city to maintain a boring, PG-rated, BYU-only reputation — are not my audience here.

I think there are two ways to improve any city’s reputation:

1. Improving the city itself

2. Improving the publicity about the city

I’m optimistic that Provo is actually improving. The city was, without a doubt, worse off when I arrived most recently in 2003. And while I hope for development that makes the city more diverse, walkable, sustainable and artistic, I ultimately think we’re underselling what we currently have.

So how do we improve our publicity? How do we stop underselling?

I think the biggest publicity problem that Provo faces is a failure to identify and understand it’s target audience. Provo — as well as its major businesses and institutions — is run by a fairly homogeneous group of people. Most of them are white, most are middle aged and most are Mormon. There are some notable exceptions, but as I observe the city’s branding efforts, they seem designed to attract these same sorts of people: white, middle-aged Mormons.

That’s certainly a demographic that is worth attracting, but unfortunately it seems like the only demographic that is being attracted. And since young, diverse workers are the engines of growth, Provo’s lack of PR focus undermines its growth.

Perhaps I’m wrong. I’m certainly becoming less right, as the city makes efforts to embrace youth culture. But can anyone think of programs, initiatives or efforts that city or institutional leaders have undertaken to reach out to young people? Has anyone actively tried to brand the city as a place for young people? I can’t think of much. In fact, after I graduated from BYU, I was saddened to discover that among some politically active people in the city the anti student sentiment is much more vehement than I ever imagined.

This is a problem because Provo needs to attract more young people. It needs to become a place where non-natives consider settling down, or setting up shop. To solve that problem, Provo needs to identify the people it wants to attract, and target them.

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Provo’s Reputation: Part 1

What can Provo do to improve its reputation?

As evidenced by the dining review mentioned a couple of posts ago — as well as by numerous other articles such as this one, and personal interactions I have all the time with people from other parts of the state — Provo struggles to be perceived as a cool and exciting place. There’s plenty of media coverage of cool things in Provo, but that coverage usually frames those things as existing in spite of their location, not because of it.

This is not a frivolous issue. People base major life decisions — where they will live, work and play — on perceptions about place. No one wants to exist in a boring place, and if Provo doesn’t do a better job at controlling this issue it will face significantly stalled development and financial growth. It will be a less enjoyable place to live for everyone, regardless of personal tastes and interests. Ultimately, I would argue that after jobs, reputation is the most important factor in a city’s prosperity. To care about growth, development or quality of life is to care about reputation, even if reputation isn’t a specifically stated area of concern.

As I write this post, I don’t have a list of answers to solve this problem, though I hope the process of writing will lead to some. However, I think the problem lies in the distinction made in the first paragraph: good things exist in Provo in spite of the city, not because of it.

Provo needs to control this narrative. And change it. There are some amazing things in the city: music, art, good restaurants, outstanding outdoor activities, etc. A good first step would be to actively define these things as “Good Provo Things” rather than “Good Things in Provo.”

That distinction is more than semantic. It posits that the good things in the city not only developed here, but were cultivated here as well. I think members of the music community already try to do this, but I have seen very little effort otherwise. Where are the city’s efforts to brand itself as the “Birthplace of the Rooftop Concert Series“? Where is the targeted publicity touting the city’s astonishingly diverse array of ethnic restaurants? If you asked people in Salt Lake County to shout the first word that came to mind after hearing “Provo,” how many of them would say “Velour”?

Solving and explaining Provo’s reputation problem will be complex, and I’m going to post (at least) a few more times on it. Provo gets a lot of positive press about things like crime rates, families and even retirement, but those comparatively middle-aged topics aren’t enough to draw numerous young, educated workers to the city.

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