Shuttered buildings and abandoned storefronts line several streets by day. At night, the trickle of pedestrians sputters into a drip as the working day draws to a close and the city settles into a perpetually early slumber.
This is downtown Salt Lake City _ and, for the most part, always has been. Despite hype created by the city hosting the 2002 Winter Olympic and the promises of reinventing and demystifying the state for the rest of the world, life in the valley remains much the same _ full of Mormons, mountains and, many tourists say, not much else.
But the city is again aiming to revitalize itself, filling up vacant facades and courting more tourists with some success.
No one has taken as great an interest in that endeavor as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is already the region’s largest landowner and counts the city as its international headquarters.
But for some people, who think Utah should shed its reputation as the Mormon capitol of the world, that’s exactly the problem.
On Wednesday, the church finalized the purchase of a 560,000-square foot office complex it intends to turn into a college campus for a business school and a new branch of Brigham Young University. It also plans to renovate the two downtown shopping malls it owns _ luring high-fashion tenants and adding housing to their blocks.
“This development is absolutely critical to the social and economic development of the city center,” Bishop H. David Burton said while announcing the new college campus.
Typically, the church’s business ventures fall in line with its ultraconservative values, which reject things like alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.
Some of the church’s properties, including one of the shopping malls, aren’t open on Sundays because the faith believes that would interfere with worship.
Church officials have stressed that they would leave the area open to any visitor, regardless of religion.
But some critics _ led by Mayor Rocky Anderson, himself a Mormon, albeit nonpracticing _ say they’re concerned that the church expanding its property and business portfolios simply means pushing its beliefs onto the rest of the population.
The church is going to be an essential party in revitalizing the city, but Anderson has urged it not to homogenize the area with a strictly Mormon influence.
“I don’t expect to see night clubs sitting on property owned by the LDS church,” Anderson said. “But we do need to have a vibrant nightlife, and do need to provide choices.”
Potential problems with how new church developments might affect other businesses are numerous, because of rigorous regulations outlining what can be near a school or place of worship.
Salt Lake City has no particular “entertainment district,” in part because city law prohibits having more than two bars per block on the same street.
Anderson has tried to lift that restriction, and is lobbying for changes in state liquor laws _ which restrict the sale of drinks exceeding 4 percent alcohol volume to state-run stores and levy per-unit prices for full-strength beer, making a $12 six-pack common. Alcohol consumption in many establishments requires a membership.
Critics have long argued those laws discourage tourism and undercut the state’s skiing industry.
“It doesn’t make sense for millions of dollars in tourism ads to be spent, and then to greet them with incredibly obnoxious, abnormal liquor restrictions that no longer serve any purpose,” Anderson said.
Bill Leonard, professor of church history and dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, said other churches have similarly strong property holdings in regions with heavy membership, including the Catholic church in the Northeast and Southern Baptist Convention in the South.
Leonard said the decision to expand into business ventures creates a dilemma for those like the LDS church: risk letting the urban area wither, or invest and weather involvement in a nonspiritual venture perhaps contrary to the group’s mission.
“Unless you’re willing to build it as a witness and take a loss, and make it genuinely nonprofit, then you’re going to have to deal with these issues of how far you’re going to go in the economic world,” he said.
“The effort to renovate and reclaim urban areas may be very helpful to a community,” Leonard added. “But as one particular religious group does it, that might promote a kind of unofficial religious establishment that inhibits freedom of religion.”
That’s also the dilemma for city leaders like Anderson, who must at the same time pique the church’s investment interests and maintain a secular city attractive to outsiders.
“This doesn’t have anything at all to do with greater alcohol consumption,” he said, responding to a popular criticism from LDS faithful.
“It has to do with building identifiable districts appealing to tourists, and providing a more hospitable business environment for those looking to bring their businesses to Salt Lake City.”
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