Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Declaration of Independence

One of the most remarkable things about downtown Provo, perhaps the most remarkable, is how independent it has stayed. There are more restaurants per square mile than all but the most touristy of places, for example, but no chains.

The result is innovation, creativity and an unparalleled experience. Everyone has their favorite places in downtown and it’s a testament to the diversity of the area that there are so many differing opinions; it takes a lot of hard work and success to inspire wildly different but devoted fans.

Downtown Provo is filled with innovative and independent businesses. A new Facebook page has been created to help foster that environment.

Recently, a friend asked if I’d be interested in jumping on as an administrator for the Keep Downtown Independent Facebook page. And after a quick conversation, I realized it was something I definitely support. As I see it, the idea is to keep downtown Provo filled with creativity and innovation. It’s to keep local money in the local economy. It’s to continue building downtown and making a great place, or a greater place.

Every city should have a page like this, and many probably do. But if you care about building a great city that isn’t generic or like anywhere else in the world, go like the page. And while you’re at it, share your vision for the future of downtown Provo.

 

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Filed under buy local, community, Downtown, Provo, restaurant

Like a Bird on a Wire

Have you ever wished there were more birds on your street? Do you long for the songs of the sparrows and starlings? Or, do you sometimes feel like the street signs in your neighborhood are a little too plain?

If so, you might want to take a cue from one avian-oriented guerrilla urbanist, who installed a pair of bird feeders on a downtown street sign.

Bird feeders on a street sign near downtown.

These feeders are hung from wires attached to this sign.

Though I know very little about these bird feeders, they’re still great examples of how cities are constantly inspiring people bring little improvements, and innovations, to the built environment.

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Filed under neighborhood

The Arts and Economic Growth

Every few weeks there’s a new story illustrating the correlation between investment in the arts and prosperity. This time, the story comes from Philadelphia.

According to Philly.com — which seems to be affiliated with the Philadelphia Inquirer — a new study revealed that cultural activity in the Philadelphia area supports 44,000 jobs and generates $170 million in state and local taxes. The article also mentions that the arts support tens of thousands of jobs in Houston and Washington D.C. as well.

Philadelphia’s “chief cultural officer” — a position more cities should consider creating — summed up the lesson of this information, which applies to cities everywhere:

“We need to be invested more in the sector,” he said, speaking of government dollars. “Investment in the culture sector is investment that’s returned back to citizens and back to the treasury.” It is, he said, “a real economic-development investment.”

These points reminded me of a recent economic development meeting I attended. During the meeting, a couple of consultants were trying to figure out what Provo could do to spur more economic growth. There are many possible strategies to accomplish that goal, but as Philadelphia — as well as several previous posts — demonstrate, the arts are one thing with a proven track record of success.

The Covey Center for the Arts in downtown.

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Filed under arts, economics

What We’re Getting Wrong About Public Transit

The Tribune’s Lee Davidson reported yesterday that planners are encouraging cities to build denser, more concentrated developments around public transportation. That’s positive news and should result in significantly better cities along the Wasatch Front.

But reading the article, I couldn’t help wondering if we’re still slightly missing the point. While commuter rail and transit hubs are wonderful, they tend to focus on reducing car use for longer trips — going from city to city, for example — while ignoring more common short trips people make while driving around town.

Take Daybreak, for example, the sparkling new suburb in south Salt Lake County that I’ve criticized several times in recent posts. Daybreak gets a lot of things right. There’s rail linking it to Salt Lake City, much higher density than most suburbs, and a stated interest in sustainability. In many ways it’s a great place.

The problem, however, is that planners in Daybreak — as well as nearly everywhere else in Utah — have seemingly ignored shorter trips. With sprawling neighborhoods, few mixed use buildings housing necessities like grocery stores, and a few big arterial (st)roads, users still have to get around by car. Sure, those car trips may be shorter than in traditional suburbs, but they’re still happening and current rail doesn’t change that fact. In fact in most Utah cities, people have to drive to get to public transit in the first place.

Daybreak includes laudable efforts to increase density, such as these apartments. But at least so far, there are few destinations — basic stores, entertainment, etc. — within walking distance of these buildings. Hopefully that will change, but in the meantime some of the benefits of the density are lost as residents make local trips via car.

And unfortunately, people tend to drive around town a lot more than they drive to neighboring cities. Figures vary depending on who collects them, but according to GOOD, “nearly 70 percent of American’s car trips are less than two miles long.” Smart Growth America and the Sierra Club are both a bit more conservative, saying that nearly 50 percent of car trips are three miles long or less.

No matter how we slice it though, we tend to make a lot of really short trips around town in our cars. We drive to the store, to drop kids off at school, or to restaurants. And unfortunately, new rail systems — in Daybreak, Provo or elsewhere — are unlikely to change that.

The oddest thing about this whole situation is that building commuter rail systems is really expensive. It requires leveling land, building bridges, and laying hundreds of miles of track.

Some people will use this commuter rail station in Provo to go north for work or play. But most of the time we spend in transit is more local, where this train doesn’t go. That means we’ve spent a lot of money to make a minority of our trips greener and more convenient.

By contrast, allowing developers to build infill in existing neighborhoods, then adding a bus line here or there to serve the resulting density, barely costs the public anything at all. In other words, we’re chasing more expensive, government funded options while ignoring the cheaper, more effective, and privately funded options that have been available all along.

The point is that much of the attention on transit in Utah right now focuses exclusively on replacing long car trips with long train trips. That’s great, but we also need to look at replacing short car trips with short walks, bike rides, or bus trips. Ultimately, without a decent intra-city public transit system, as well as the density and walkability to support it, building commuter rail is like trying to bake bread without yeast: it just won’t rise.

A TRAX light rail station in Daybreak. It’s great that this exists, really, but clearly the idea is that people will have to use cars to use public transit. The goal, however, shouldn’t be brief car trips, it should be no car trips at all.

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Filed under commuting, travel, urban

The New Rec Center is Almost Done

Provo’s new recreation center will be operational within six months, according to my colleague Genelle Pugmire. City leaders seem understandably excited about the new facility, and deputy mayor Cory Norman reportedly learned from a consultant that it was in the “98th for high ratings on rec centers throughout the country,” whatever that means.

Construction on Provo’s new rec center. This facility should be operational in six months.

I’ve been in favor of the rec center from the earliest stages because I believe it adds a valuable amenity to the city and improves quality of life for residents. I’m also impressed that the city leaders are trying to think creatively about how to pay for the building:

Norman is working with a special committee on raising funds to help pay back the bond on the center earlier. Naming rights for rooms and areas of the center are for sale depending on the area of the center.

“We’re doing really well,” Norman said. “I can’t be specific, but we have several firm commitments, but there are still many areas available.”

Norman said, businesses, family foundations and others willing to contribute to the building will have special plaques put up about their history in the room they are sponsoring.

I’ll be interested to see how that plan unfolds, but whatever happens it’s an example of leaders trying to innovate ways to improve quality of life at the lowest possible cost. And that’s something that should make everyone in the community happy.

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Filed under construction, Development

The Right Side of the Tracks

Back in May, I quoted Slate’s Matthew Yglesias as saying that transit stations often dramatically “increase the value of station-proximate land.” Now, just months later, that phenomenon is occurring in Draper and offers useful lessons for neighboring cities like Provo.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Draper city council is trying to create a Community Development Area Plan, which will stimulate growth around the city’s train station.

The area would include an Ebay complex, commercial areas, dense residential buildings, walking and hiking trails. In 20 years, it is estimated to bring $1.2 million in proposed developmental value.

The Draper example has at least two noteworthy implications for Provo. The first is that the land surrounding the new intermodal hub is a likely spot for development and cities need to actively pursue options. If that seems a little obvious, keep in mind that Provo is currently building a parking lot around its transit station and the area remains appallingly unwalkable and plagued by blight.

Provo’s commuter rail station.

The situation will surely improve with time, but these issues aren’t immediately fixing themselves and cities like Draper prove that being proactive can pay off.

The second lesson is that there is still a vast public knowledge gap about what all of this means. The article recounts how one resident encouraged city council members to research urban design principles, as expressed by Daybreak. Daybreak is certainly less bad than other suburbs, but it’s hardly the model for a community with transit right in its center. (Daybreak’s stations are located on peripheries and there is no internal transit.)

Perhaps even more tellingly, the article also points out that barely anyone showed up to discuss the development.

Taken together, these points suggest that people may simply be unfamiliar with what high density, transit-oriented development actually looks like or why it matters. That lack of awareness, or interest, may make it difficult to actually fast-track development.

The point here is that with the arrival of commuter rail cities like Draper and Provo have incredible potential. Actually capitalizing on that potential, however, will require a combination of smart development and effective public outreach.

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Becoming a Bike Friendly City

BikeProvo.org published an update yesterday regarding efforts to get Provo on the League of American Cyclists’ list of cities that are good for bike riding. According to the post, the effort began more than a year ago and included a lot of work from several of Provo’s bike activists and gurus. All that’s left now is the league’s answer.

The post explains that landing on the list will have a variety of “less-tangible” benefits including momentum, guidance, attention and more recognition. There will be more immediately visible benefits as well:

All that hard work isn’t for nothing. Becoming a bike-friendly city could be a big deal for Provo. Yes, we would be listed on League of American Cyclist publications and would get to put up two Bike-Friendly Community signs.

To those points I would add that that biking has been shown to save lives, increase city prosperity, attract young people, and save money for cyclists and non-cyclists alike, among other things.

For all of these reasons, the work being done by the Provo Bicycle Committee is a major boon for the city.

Provo is in the process of being recognized as a bike-friendly city.

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Filed under biking, commuting

The Free Fare Zone Survives in SLC

UTA announced today that it will keep the free fare zone in downtown Salt Lake City. The actual experience of using the zone will be altered, but people will still be able to ride the bus without paying in downtown Salt Lake City.

The announcement concludes an evaluation that began earlier this year when UTA considered eliminating the free fare zone. Though the proposal was attacked, UTA cited “minimal” financial costs of as much as $200,000 per year, as well as operational inefficiencies, as contributing reasons to get rid of the zone.

Tuesday’s announcement seems to strike the right balance by correcting the inefficiencies of the system while preserving a useful amenity.

As Kaid Benfield pointed out in July, public transit often has numerous “hidden” economic benefits. Richard Florida further noted that families living in transit-friendly areas also benefit.

The point is that while a free fare zone may cost taxpayers a little bit up front, there are an array of benefits to bolstering and capitalizing on the existing system. That’s also true of larger public transit systems which may not always be immediately profitable but offer an economically advantageous amenity for cities.

UTA recently decided that the benefits of a free fare zone in Salt Lake City outweigh the costs. Provo — where this picture was taken — doesn’t have a free fare zone, but the same lesson holds true with public transit generally.

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Filed under commuting, economics, utah

Provo Business Recycling Made Easier

Just a few days ago I was talking to a friend about the challenges of recycling in Provo. I argued that residential recycling in the city is fairly easy with the new opt out program, but he countered that for certain kinds of businesses it’s actually much more difficult.

This week however, the city implemented measures to begin remedying that problem. According to my colleague Genelle Pugmire, the idea — which is still in a proposal stage — would give tax credits to businesses that recycle.

Eligible businesses using recycled materials or doing recycling will qualify for a 5 percent Utah state income tax credit on the cost of machinery and equipment, a 20 percent Utah state income tax credit, up to $2,000, on eligible operating expenses, technical assistance from state recycling economic development professionals, and modest local incentives.

Apparently the program is already happening in 20 other Utah cities and can result in major economic benefits. Staffers have apparently looked into the program and haven’t found any downsides and there’s apparently a lot of interest in the program:

Jarvis added, “I was surprised at how many claimed they would be eligible, including big firms like Western Metals Recycling, Novatek and NuSkin as well as small ones like Communal restaurant and Ecoscraps.”

Jarvis added that Curtis would like to start a Provo Green Business Certification program. The hope would be to have all businesses go green.

Like many cities, there are still many areas in which Provo can improve its environmental stewardship. However, it’s also not every city where the mayor and other leadership take action and explicitly state that they want to make every business green.

Provo is beginning a program to help businesses recycle.

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Filed under environment, Provo

Why Businesses in Provo Sometimes Fail

This post is the first authored by a guest contributor. If you would like to submit to this blog visit the Submit page.

by Jake Haws

There is a certain vacant building on North Canyon Road which, at one point, was home to Pizza Pipeline. After several years, they closed it down and a new pizza place took over called Big Daddy’s. After a year or so, Big Daddy’s closed and American Pie took over. Another year or so went by and American Pie closed down, this time with DK Pizza taking over. That lasted for several months but now the place is closed down again and has been for a few years. With this kind of luck, you’d think it was the site of an ancient Indian burial ground or something.

A now-vacant building that once housed several different pizza restaurants.

You can see pizza history repeating itself on Center Street: Pier 41 to The Parlor to Two Jacks to who knows what will be next.  In the 6 years that I lived in Provo, I’ve also witnessed a string of other business come and go: boutiques Coal Umbrella, Mode, and Maddux Couture; cafes Pennyroyal, Vermillion Skies, and F-Stop; and restaurants Maestros, Rooster, and Nellie’s, to name a few.

In a town that was ranked by Forbes as the number one “best place for business and careers”, one has to wonder what’s going on.

The now-defunct Nellie’s Diner in downtown Provo.

Allow me to frame my views with a few lines from Arrested Development:

Tobias: You know, Lindsay, as a therapist, I have advised a number of couples to explore an open relationship where the couple remains emotionally committed, but free to explore extra-marital encounters.

Lindsay: Well, did it work for those people?

Tobias: No, it never does. I mean, these people somehow delude themselves into thinking it might, but…. but it might work for us.

In my mind, the reason some of these businesses failed is that they were unable (or unwilling) to learn from the mistakes of the past. They don’t do their homework and lack an understanding of the local market. They think to themselves “Sure, there have been three failed pizza parlors in this exact location…. But it might work for us.” They think that they can do the same business in the same way and somehow expect a different result.

I would often hear people say things like, “I want to open a [insert hip sounding business] because Provo really needs a cool hangout spot,” when in fact they were standing right next to a few of them and were completely ignorant of a handful of others in the area that had closed down in the last couple of years.

I think people are also attracted to the certain romanticism attributed to running a business. They want to “be their own boss,” unaware that this can often mean 60-80 hour work weeks and some very big headaches.

There are obviously several other reasons why businesses fail — little or no marketing, poorly managed finances, lack of strong initial funding to get off the ground, external events beyond your control, etc. — but my point is that you need to understand what you are getting into when you open a business in Provo.  You are dealing with unique challenges such as a large portion of the population coming and going  every year, fighting a mentality that “there is nothing to do in Provo,” and selling to an extremely frugal crowd (count the number of cars in the dollar theater parking lot on a Friday night sometime).

Now before you label me as a jaded cynic, my purpose isn’t to deter you from starting a business. Win or lose, there is something to be said about taking a risk doing something you are passionate about. There are many successful examples to look at of how to make a business in downtown Provo work.

I’m simply pointing out that you need to do your homework. Talk to the business owners — the failed and successful — and ask them what happened with their business, what things they have learned, and how you can run your business differently so you don’t repeat their mistakes. Look at the successful businesses and identify factors that will most likely be the key to your success. Make sure you are truly fulfilling a need instead of convincing yourself the need exists just so you can start the business.

After you’ve done that, take a deep breath and go for it! Everyone goes through struggles but be adaptive and course correct when necessary. If you can pay attention and learn from other people’s mistakes, than you can avoid becoming part of the graveyard of Provo’s failed business history.

Jake Haws is an online marketing professional and web analyst. He recently completed an MBA from the University of Utah and has worked for Raw Data, a market research startup. Jake also owned and managed Muse Music Cafe for six years until he sold the business in 2011.

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Filed under Development, Downtown, economics