After my last post, several friends helpfully alerted me to the fact that Utah Valley used to have an REI. Whoa! Apparently, it was in Orem, and closed at the end of 1998 (which is long before I moved to Utah). REI cited slow sales as the reason behind the closure.
I believe this revelation poses two major challenges to my proposal to bring an REI to Provo. First, it raises questions about the potential profitability of a Utah County REI. And second, if an REI would be profitable — and that’s a big “if” — it raises questions about how Utah County officials and residents can convince the company to come back.
As a person who makes a living with words and who earned a master’s degree studying and teaching rhetoric, I think the second question is the easier one to answer. It’s reasonable, for example, to point out that in the last 13 years the Provo-Orem metro area has seen a significant population increase. Since 2000, Provo has added 7,322 residents. Orem has added 4,004. Spanish Fork nearly doubled in size during the 1990s, and Lehi grew by a whopping 124 percent during that same period. All those cities around Alpine barely even existed in 1998. So, there are a lot more potential consumers in Utah Valley today than there were a decade ago.
Provo also could tout downtown as a more conducive business environment. Downtown would need some major investment before it was ready for any chain retailers, but it’s much better suited to REI’s community-interested, outdoorsy ethos. Plus, as troubled as downtown is, it’s in much better shape than it was in the 1990s. Conversely, sprawling, car-centric, low-income Orem seems like a bad place for any business, but is particularly ill-suited for an REI.
Other major changes include the conversion of UVSC to UVU, the arrival of Adobe, and the current political leadership in Provo.
With this information and more, I think I could put together a pretty great pitch for REI in Provo, so city employees — whose job it is to attract businesses — should be able to do even better.
But none of this really proves that REI actually would be profitable in Provo. So, would it?
Though the area has seen substantial growth, Provo and Orem have grown more slowly in the last 10 years than at any other time in the last century. That’s truly terrible, and bodes very badly for retailers thinking of coming to town. REI also would have to compete with Cabelas, a store that is similar yet targeted sufficiently at hunters to prompt a non-hunter to recently describe it to me as “scary.”
Slow population growth and added competition doesn’t make for a winning combination. But I think that the growth of Provo-Orem satellite cities is the saving grace of the situation. I’m particularly enthused by the growth of cities in south Utah County, where driving to competing locations in Salt Lake is less convenient and requires consumers to pass right through Provo.
I still think Provo is an ideal location for an REI. But I can’t lie, it made me really sad to discover that Utah County residents couldn’t sustain one back in the 1990s. In light of the Nordstrom closing, it raises questions about what sorts of retailers Provo-Orem actually can sustain. If people in the area are too poor or too tight-fisted to invest in anything but the absolute basics, we’ll never move beyond the the suburban sprawl and the urban blight.