Ralph Becker sent me his response to Tony Weller for reposting here. Tony has not shared any other responses with me, nor have I asked him to. If any campaign wants to send me their response, I will also put it on this blog.
Response to Letter from Tony Weller
Thank you, Tony, for your letter about downtown Salt Lake City issues. You and your family have been stalwarts in making downtown Salt Lake City the place it should beâ€”a place with thriving, interesting, local stores built by owners who invest, both economically and emotionally, in our City.
I have appreciated and enjoyed our discussions over the years. Your letter reflects insightful, thoughtful consideration of the challenges and opportunities for our downtown.
Downtown as The Gathering Place
An opening thought about downtown: With the City Creek Center as an enormous, mixed-use development (retail, office, residential, creekside amenities, and grocery shopping) and likely regional draw, the project-specific Downtown Rising plan, strong residential growth, and the draft Downtown Transportation Plan, Salt Lake City has an agenda that can give our city center the means to re-emerge as a true gathering place for our community and the region. I will bring committed, focused leadership to the mayorâ€™s office. The next few years will require follow through, working together. Iâ€™ve presented my agenda for our neighborhood and downtown Salt Lake City in detail in one of my blueprints, which can be accessed at http://www.ralphbecker.com/neighborhoods.
Locally owned businesses contribute more to the economy through the multiplier effect, and to our quality of life because of their charm, character, and responsiveness to local needs. Salt Lake City should pursue various ways to prevent putting local businesses at a disadvantage and should support our local entrepreneurs; many of the approaches are in place, but are not used in a disciplined way.
As you know, Tony, I share your views about local businesses. Twenty-two years ago, I started my own local business, Bear West, which is an environmental planning, policy development and consulting firm, and have felt the challenges from large, out-of-state businesses coming into town and using their size to an advantage, sometimes unfairly. Iâ€™ve personally been affected by the cityâ€™s failure to provide a level playing field in procurement actions. I know the problem manifests itself in other ways as well.
I am with you 100% on the principle that Salt Lake City should not be using taxpayer funds to lure businesses to town, particularly out-of-state businesses. It is the primary reason I have stated, in response to questions about Gateway, that the city made a mistake there. That development has sucked business from our downtown core, and the City directly subsidized it.
You discuss corporate welfare. That is bad government, and it is a result of all kinds of unfortunate influences stemming from special-interest politics that dominate legislative decision-making. As you know, I have fought this battle consistently at the Legislatureâ€”opposing sales tax exemptions for every business that seems to have a strong lobbying force, proposing a gift ban from lobbyists to legislators, and working hard to introduce many campaign finance and government ethics reforms. Salt Lake City has lost some great potential employers (for example, Amer Sports, the worldâ€™s largest sports equipment company, has recently made Ogden the home of the new U.S. headquarters for its Salomon, Atomic, and Suunto brands), because they just kept sweetening the pie with perks. I donâ€™t claim to know the answer here; if we just say no to any help in attracting business to Salt Lake City, we will be at a competitive disadvantage in instances where there are clear benefits overall to our community. Salt Lake City also needs help in defining local vs. out-of-state and big vs. small businesses so we can properly tailor our efforts.
I strongly believe that Salt Lake City should first of all focus its investments on improvements that make the whole city better, thereby making Salt Lake City the place businesses want to locate because of our high quality of life: top-tier education, great transportation choices (especially transit), world-class cultural and entertainment venues, and a clean and accessible natural environment.
There is also, however, a practical reality in the competition for businesses deciding where to locateâ€”businesses pit community against community and neighbor against neighbor in direct competition. And, we see suburban locational decisions having adverse effects on sprawl, air quality, traffic congestion, and loss of open space. Those costs are not presently paid by individual businesses. Too often, the incentives play a role, and Salt Lake City needs to judiciously participate.
Iâ€™d like to see our RDA become much more proactive in helping local businesses and in making decisions based on our planning objectives as a city. The city has too often used incentives at cross-purposes with our planning goals. Again, the Cityâ€™s heavy subsidization of Gateway has cost our core downtown and local business substantial opportunities for growth and development. (Gateway offers attractive amenities and will serve Salt Lake City well in the long term, but it has created short-term problems.)
Tax credits are largely dictated by state and federal policies, and the Cityâ€™s role is limited unless we just say we wonâ€™t let projects using these tools benefit from local assistance. But that may also hurt local businesses.
A primary RDA tool, tax-increment financing, focuses on underutilized properties, and tends to be used for larger projects that will increase property taxes over time. It is not a tool that often helps small or existing businesses. RDA loans are available for rehabilitation of existing structures, and I believe they serve as a useful tool for smaller businesses. (I think this tool was used for some of your remodeling when you added the Coffee Garden inside your bookstore.) We should make sure this tool continues to help local, smaller businesses. RDA property write-downs are another tool that can help get a project started. The city successfully used this practice to help get the mixed-use Marmalade development just west of the Capitol Building off the ground. The RDA grants can be targeted for smaller, local businesses, and I believe they have often been well-used for affordable housing projects as well as for attracting businesses to locate on Main Street.
Downtown parking needs to be reworked as part of the Downtown Transportation Plan so that it becomes understandable and easy. Weâ€™ve discussed this issue together before, and I am in basic agreement with your views. Implementation of the draft Downtown Transportation Master Plan would achieve your idea of a Downtown Parking Authority. We need consistency in parking, and I agree that the pre-pay lots are a serious problem. A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a fundraiser for Plan B Theater. We had to delay the start of the performance because folks were lined up at the pre-pay parking lot across the street. A Downtown Parking Authority would establish standards and consistency, and it would help us develop lots that are on the perimeter of downtown that provide easy access to a well-developed, downtown-area transit circulator system, thereby reducing traffic congestion and helping to make downtown safer and more friendly, inviting, and accessible for employees, businesspeople, tourists, shoppers, and residents. We also need to look at our zoning ordinances to limit the ability to use prime downtown space as surface parking and land banking.
We have to do something about vacant storefronts and buildings on hold in our core downtown area. Iâ€™m glad to see construction begin at 222 South Main.
Simply creating a â€œblightâ€ tax or a â€œvacant buildingsâ€ tax may not get us what we want because it might force tearing down buildings we want to save (like the Utah Theater). Iâ€™m not sure at this time what the best approach would be, but I would like to consult with other experts and property owners to see what we can do that makes sense and is part of a thoughtful, reasoned approach.
I am optimistic that downtown Salt Lake City is on the brink of returning to the vital, thriving center I remember when I moved here in the 1970s. Within five to 10 years, Iâ€™m confident downtown can become The Gathering Place, a place drawing people from the entire region and beyond into a flourishing, prosperous center for commerce, entertainment, retail, housing, and personal enrichment on many levels. The pieces and plans are falling into place. As the next mayor, using my concrete background as a long-time professional planner, my connections to the Utah Legislature and a wide variety of other individuals in all levels of business and government and throughout the community, I will work to carry out necessary actions and bring people together to build coalitions.
Tony, I sincerely and deeply appreciate all that you and your family have done over the years, contributing hard work, sacrifice, and dedication toward helping make our City such a livable community. This is a rough time for existing downtown merchants, but we have so many possibilities for a strong, bright future if we work together and take the time to plan wisely and follow through on those plans. Again, thank you for taking the time to formulate and write down some of your thoughts about the downtown area and its development. I look forward to the opportunity to work with you in the near future to achieve our potential as a Great American City.