Utah Stories recently reviewed its coverage of City Creek, aptly pointing out that most media in Salt Lake City never bothered asking any critical and important questions about the LDS Church’s $2 billion mall.
The article also charts what I think of as Salt Lake City’s “mall bubble”: every few years the city erects a new facility, which then puts old malls and local shops alike out of business. It’s a bizarre cycle, but one that Provo and other cities have mostly managed to avoid. Hopefully articles like this one help dissuade people from supporting more mall-like development.
What stands out most to me, however, is the article’s emphasis how malls damage the local business community. As I’ve written before, buying from locally owned shops channels money back into the local economy. On the other hand, buying from large chains funnels money to distant corporate headquarters. It’s such an obvious process that I have a hard time understanding any city’s willingness to peg economic development to a mall like City Creek; in the end, there might be a bit more skim in the form of sales tax, but overall there’s less milk to go around.
If the LDS Church and civic leaders had really wanted to revitalize Salt Lake City, they consequently should have looked for opportunities to invest in the local economy. They should have worked to do something more complex than just than add a few hundred medium- to low-paying retail and management jobs. They should have been looking to diversify and broaden the economy.
There are many ways to do that, but if I had been calling the shots I’d have invested all $2 billion in startups and business development. Think about it: the church could have invested a million dollars apiece in 2,000 startups. That’s a staggering figure, though obviously the money could have been distributed to fewer businesses and with more complexity. The church also could have used the money to bring existing businesses to the city.
In any case, with 2,000 new startups only a tiny percentage would have needed to succeed in order to generate thousands of good, career-track jobs. Salt Lake City could have eclipsed other centers of technology, medicine, or anything else. More malls might have eventually sprung up due to demand, rather than due to a wealthy supplier.
The opportunity has passed for Salt Lake City, but for cities like Provo that are looking for economic development, the lesson is an important one. Though a shiny new mall is exciting and fun, just a little bit of delayed gratification and smart investing can result in vastly superior rewards.