Mayoral Questions by Tony Weller

Tony Weller is the current owner of downtown bookstore Sam Weller’s, which has been a fixture in Salt Lake City since 1929. You can’t think of Main Street business without thinking about the incredible work Tony and his family have done there. They have survived construction and watched as national competition has received subsidies to locate and relocate here. Tony is also a former president of the Downtown Merchant’s Association, which I am a proud member of.

Last weekend I went to buy a gift certificate from Weller’s and found that all their parking has been removed at the behest of Hamilton Partners’ building construction. The city even bagged the meters that weren’t inexplicably removed by a walkway placed outside an existing sidewalk. All this while much of neighboring 3rd South’s parking is being torn up for a beautification project. So my wife circled the block while I went in to make a purchase. The situation is so maddening that I wonder if anyone at the city building shops on Main Street anymore.

Tony wrote me asking my opinion of the mayoral candidates. After reading my blog entries, he wrote up three questions of his own and sent them off. I was struck by what he said so much that I asked for permission to repost them here. They reflect a long standing frustration downtown merchants have had with city government’s inability to take concrete action on Main Street.

If Tony receives responses to this letter he wants to share, I will be happy to repost them. As stated previously, I have endorsed Ralph Becker for mayor. You can vote in the primary NOW.

Dear Candidate for SLC Mayor:

I am fortunate to have to choose between many candidates who share many of my beliefs and in whom I have considerable trust. I know several of you, some better than others, and have made careful statements to two of you about my support for your candidacy. But I haven’t yet decided for whom I will cast my vote. That is why I am writing today.

The office of Mayor will encompass many duties and responsibilities but I have a few main concerns that will determine for whom I will vote. Since this is not a professional survey, I have made no attempt to hide my biases and beliefs. I hope, in addition to learning what you think, that I might even have a small affect on the future direction of our city.

Local Businesses

It seems that municipalities all over try to lure businesses to their communities Each time a business or development is lured in, usually with tax credits, RDA subsidies, infrastructural contributions, or some other form of tax funded subsidy, it is lauded as a great achievement. Such use of the community’s resources is justified by the rationale that it increases the overall wealth of the community. I have observed in our city how subsidies to Gateway hurt the interests of Main Street; subsidies to American Stores hurt Hamilton Partners intended pre-Olympic development; subsidies to Hermes Corp, contributed to the construction of a new Barnes and Noble that hurt my business. I can find numerous examples of corporate subsidies that have harmed the interests of local citizens for each one I might consider useful.

In the last decade, numerous surveys have been performed, measuring the effects of money spent in local versus non-local businesses. Every one (duh!) finds that the retention and recalculation rates are greater when money is spent in locally owned entities. Not only are local businesses better economically, but nation wide, the individuality and character of communities has been diminished by the colonizing practices of large corporations.

Though we seldom received it, I used to think that local businesses deserved equal treatment to out of state businesses. I no longer believe that. I now believe that local businesses deserve preferential treatment. Much in the same way that our Universities acknowledge that they owe better tuition rates to local citizens and charge higher rates to non-residents, it would benefit our city to take the same approach to businesses. After all, like the resident student, local businesses have already paid into the system and are more likely to stick around and contribute to it.

If you agree, please tell me how, as Mayor, you would address this problem and put an end to corporate welfare, capital flight and the homogenization of our city. If you disagree with me, please tell me how I am wrong.

Parking Downtown

This is not New York City. Nor is this San Francisco or Chicago. I don’t expect free parking downtown but Salt Lake citizens are accustomed to free parking. Really, the downtown area is about the only place in the city where people have no choice but to pay.

Once upon a time we had a simple validation system utilizing one uniform sticker that was worth two hours in any downtown lot. Gradually the system died. The first entities to reject the Park & Shop validation were Crossroads and the ZCMI malls (read: not team players) Next, there was a consolidation of parking interests and various parking operators, many run by non-local companies, rejected Park & Shop. The Downtown Alliance has made a great effort to address this aspect of parking with the very versatile Downtown Tokens, but since the tokens are not uniformly accepted and of uncertain and/or variable value in the context of parking lots, their use has been minimal. As long as free parking can be had within a few miles, downtown will continue to suffer by comparison. The city should take the upper hand and solve this once and for all. The establishment of a Salt Lake parking authority to manage lots, not for free, not for profit, but at cost, would reduce parking rates and would have the potential to establish consistent parking policies and rates.

Pre-pay lots are also a bane on our city. They are the least convenient, the least favorite for users and levy the highest penalties for staying overtime. Just like there are ordinances that dictate how my signs or windows must look, it would be in the best interest of the community if pre-pay parking lots were prohibited.

We must also consider parking for downtown workers. If the city is to make a serious effort to fix our parking problems once and for all, it can’t afford to neglect the workers who make the city run. Properties around the perimeter of the city should be made into parking facilities for affordable all day or monthly parking, supported by some kind of a mass transit circulator to get them to their final destinations. RDA money could be used – I’ve certainly seen enough of it thrown at destructive projects.

Private Property vs. Community Interests

My bookstore is on a street that was once very active. Now it is dominated by vacant buildings, many of which have been vacant for years. Occupied buildings are generally occupant owned or owned by middle class citizens. The vacant properties are owned by some of our community’s wealthiest citizens or companies. It is time for a discussion about the proper balance between private property rights and community rights. If what has gone on downtown had happened in a residential neighborhood, it would never have been tolerated. I suffer the consequences while people or companies richer than I connive to increase their wealth further. Vacant buildings create blight. Blight leads to crime and further blight.

In the past, RDA money or other financial tools of the city have been used to repair blight. No physician or mechanic would recommend that one run down ones body or car and then try to fix it at a later date but this is exactly how we have wasted the tax payers’ money in our city. In many cases, the recipients of our largesse have been directly responsible for the blight the city seeks to fix. Why should I contribute so that Howa can make something of his neglected property? Why should anyone have helped Boyer, American Stores or Hermes build anything?

Flip this coin over! If we have decided that it is a prudent use of the taxpayers’ money to repair blight, we ought to take some measures to prevent blight from occurring. For the damage certain property owners have wrought on our city, they ought to be charged. After all, it would take less to prevent blight than it takes to repair it once it has set in. I hope our next Mayor will recognize this situation for what it is and find a way to make those who damage our communities and neighborhoods foot the bills. Assessing a blight tax might go a ways toward ending the paradigm that permits such privileged neglect of our city. Unless this can be figured out, Main Street will continue to embarrass us. What a shame that we have spent so much to run TRAX up a mostly vacant street.

In addition to the blight, such commodification of property has priced many businesses right out of the city and contributed to the creeping sprawl at our communities’ edges where property is more affordable. If all urban property were being utilized, this might be unavoidable, but that is not the case. Clearly our market system has become a vehicle of inefficiency.

I know my ideas are extreme. The principles of the American Revolution were seen as extreme as were those behind women’s suffrage and the emancipation of slaves. Sometimes extreme action is required to avert disaster. If you’re on the wrong side of the highway, making gradual adjustments may not be enough. Please tell me what, as Mayor, you would do to address the blight we have today, /without/ rewarding those responsible for it and how you would prevent it for occurring in the future.

I’m sorry to take so much of your time. If you’ve got this far, I thank you. If pertinent answers exist in anything you’ve previously written or said, I will be content to receive or be directed to those. At very least, I want this information so that I can use my vote wisely. If your vision resembles mine, I’ll share my endorsement enthusiastically.

Earnestly yours,

Tony Weller

8 thoughts on “Mayoral Questions by Tony Weller

  1. Pingback: Pursuit of Liberty » Blog Archive » Active Citizenship

  2. Having been a Utah resident now for 12 years and recently faced people questioning my sanity by moving my family from the ‘burbs into the SLC Central City neighborhood. I can’t agree more with Mr. Weller’s assessment of the parking situation on Main Street. Over the last few months I have walked every street of downtown SLC and the thing that stood out most to me is the vast amount of mostly private parking in the downtown area. One can look at Google Earth and see that well over 50% of land use in downtown SLC is parking. Parking structure dominate the landscape providing daily homes to thousands of cars that empty out at dusk leaving downtown nearly lifeless.

    Exactly why does downtown need so much parking? Is it to provide parking for the mostly empty storefronts on Main Street and Broadway between Main and State Street? City leaders have claimed to have downtown and Main St. in particular on their “priority” list for the decade plus that I have lived here. There should be a push for an anti-blight ordinance as Mr. Weller has suggested. Encourage investment in downtown, instead of maintaining the status-quo of dilapidated, empty eyesores. Great strides could be made by revoking conditional use permits for the acres of AMPCO parking to allow more housing choices in downtown SLC. With people comes progress.

    SLC must find ways to lure people from the big box, strip malled, paved over suburbs to a lively central city entertainment,retail, and cultural district. There’s parking just not much else. I am skeptical that any of the candidates will push for such broad reaching changes but at least there may be some dialog. Kudos to Tony Weller for giving a few very good ideas.

  3. Thanks so much for posting this Pete. I love living in downtown Salt Lake because it’s so easy to get around either by walking or through public transportation. But, I must admit that it is hard to patron a store when I’m in a hurry and opt to drive there and can not find a suitable parking space. Also, it’s sad to see so many local businesses closing their doors downtown, forcing me to go elsewhere to shop (i.e. suburbia and national chain stores).

    It’s sad to see what’s happened to downtown in the last 10 years (when I first moved here) and I hope that it will get better. Better planning is needed which is why, like you Pete, I think Ralph Becker is the best choice for our next Mayor. For too long, poor planning and the lure of more money from out-of-state corporations as ruled how we develop and grow in the city. It’s definitely time for a change!

    I look forward to reading the candidates’ responses to Mr. Weller’s letter!

  4. This discussion puts me in mind of the counterproductive ways the city treats its workers and residents, as well as those of us who come into the city for entertainment. During the last showing of “And the Banned Played On”, the show had to start 40 minutes late, as there was an enormous line waiting to pre pay at the lot across the street from the Plan B theater.
    The machine wouldn’t take credit cards the first three times, and the bills one attempted to put in the machine were rejected several times. This is not productive. Thankfully the Plan B staff were willing to wait for the patrons, but I’m not sure how many other shows would have done this. After paying over $60 dollars for tickets to a production, to be delayed due to a self serving, poorly managed parking company is disgusting.

    At a recent “On Broadway” show, the machine at the pre pay lot also was not “cooperative”. My husband and I as well as several other people in line just left and went to the theater.

    My oldest son works for Fidelity. Prior to Fidelity moving to Gateway, Daniel attempted to park downtown. As there were no places to park, he ended up parking in the Salt Lake City Library parking lot. This was not only expensive but not a good use of the City facilities.

    The city is working at cross purposes; we have “Support Local (Businesses) ” posted in various stores (including Wild Oats; explain that one to me). Yet we punish both the owners and patrons by not assisting in making shopping downtown easier.

    I have talked with Representative Becker; he is a strong proponent of making Salt Lake City “user friendly”. His plans respect the business owners, bikers, shoppers and entertainment seekers in the city.

    I also look forward to seeing the responses from the Mayoral Candidates.

    Sheryl Ginsberg

  5. I agree about the need to accommodate those of us who work downtown with some kind of available and inexpensive or free parking. I’m fortunate to be able to walk to TRAX or ride my bike to my job, but I work with an entire office of others–two of whom are elderly–who must scramble for parking on west Broadway everyday.

  6. I agree with this, very passionate piece. I do think Becker is the best at envisioning the best future that incorporates solutions to all that you and many other have seen as a problem.

    I’m for Becker because of this reason. As i’m sure Paul and many others are too.

    Can’t wait to read all the answers to this one tho. This is a great race.

  7. Pete,

    Have any of the candidates responded yet? Where can I find the responses?

    Thanks so much for taking the time to post this.


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