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.
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 havenâ€™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.
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 communityâ€™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.
This is not New York City. Nor is this San Francisco or Chicago. I donâ€™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 canâ€™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 â€“ Iâ€™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 communityâ€™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 payersâ€™ 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 taxpayersâ€™ 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 communitiesâ€™ 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 womenâ€™s suffrage and the emancipation of slaves. Sometimes extreme action is required to avert disaster. If youâ€™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.
Iâ€™m sorry to take so much of your time. If youâ€™ve got this far, I thank you. If pertinent answers exist in anything youâ€™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, Iâ€™ll share my endorsement enthusiastically.