Google “Utah’s tourism office” and click on the first link. You get directed to a site full of stories about Utah’s mountainous landscapes and outdoor activities.
But if you scroll down ever so slightly, you get to read a prominently placed story about Utah’s coffee shops. Scroll even further and a story pops up about a local blues musician telling you his top picks for live music.
Coffee entrepreneurs. Live music. Locally crafted beer. In Utah?
Some may think Utah’s unique urban experience is in its infancy. But Scott Beck of Visit Salt Lake says Utah’s urban experience has always been there. Think Abravanel Hall where the Utah Symphony plays, or Capitol Theatre where Ballet West performs. These places aren’t new. But Beck, president and CEO, says energies combined since the 2002 Winter Olympics to shine a greater light on Utah’s urban pockets. Some places—Salt Lake City—gained more strength. Others—such as Ogden—got a makeover. Even some traditionally conservative neighborhoods—we’re looking at you, Provo—surprised us by offering a vibrant, young music and culture scene despite limited bar access.
Today, the Utah image may be morphing into something new. Vicki Varela, managing director at the Utah Office of Tourism, calls it the beginning of an urban renaissance.
“We want to tell the story—the true story—of Salt Lake City, which is that we’re like no other place because we do have this rich interest in heritage that continues to thrive,” Varela says. “And then we have these urban pioneers who experience and offer up the valley in new ways.”
She wants to tell the story of these urban pioneers so much that her office is getting ready to launch a major urban marketing strategy. Varela wants to persuade people to see the undiscovered Salt Lake City.
“A whole metropolitan area has really grown into itself with beautiful heritage that defines these communities in many ways,” she says. “The great evolving food destinations, culture destinations, brew pubs—really sort of the insider stuff that have evolved right in our urban core that a lot of people don’t know about.”
Density of experiences
Jay Kinghorn works with Varela and says each city along the Wasatch Front has its own personality—so don’t try to lump them together. He recently met with residents in the Utah County area and they touched on Provo’s music scene.
“I don’t know what I can say what the catalyst is—why Provo is such a hot music scene and has been such a great incubator,” says Kinghorn, associate managing director of Utah’s Office of Tourism. “I think the locals support musicians in such a way that isn’t present elsewhere.”
Beck says three things recently created stronger urban pockets in Utah: strong business communities, public and private investment in urban places, and a newly championed message that says our unique food and drink is worth your time. However it came about, the urban community is now exploding, he says. And visiting urban experiences is different than visiting Arches or Zion because those places are limited in capacity and services.
“There’s no lack of infrastructure on the Wasatch front,” Beck says. We have enough roads and hotel rooms so there’s opportunity in this urban core to let the urban-ness out of the box.”
Beck considers a place urban when it challenges you. Maybe not in the same way that a 12-mile Zions hike challenges you. But something that challenges your senses. “Most Utahns think urban is not being able to park in front of where you want to go,” he says, laughing. “I think urban is when you’re in close proximity to a density of experiences.”
Arts. Culture. Unique food. It all creates an urban feel when packed together in defined neighborhoods.
“There’s a concentration of those experiences here,” he says. “You can park one place and walk for blocks. Visit live theater, hear live music, taste unique food. It’s a pedestrian-oriented type of experience.”
Beck says that while Cedar City and St. George offer local places and events such as the annual Shakespeare Festival, the urban growth he’s seeing is mostly taking place in Northern Utah—namely the Wasatch Front, Salt Lake City, Sandy and Ogden.
Hale Center Theatre recently opened a larger, more robust location in Sandy. Beck says that will transform Sandy’s small urban look and feel in positive ways; big attractions like that typically bring more restaurants and nightlife.
Ogden is one of those cool downtown urban locales, too, he says—a great example of public and private investment.
“In all honesty, Ogden has this outdoor urban ethos, much stronger than Salt Lake City,” Beck says. “Salt Lake is arts and culture with museums and downtown urban dwellers. But Ogden has a genuine and authentic feel kind of coming together in combination with outdoor and urban.”
At one time, Ogden was famous for its brothels and bars. Today, the historic section of 25th Streets boasts places such as Roosters Brewing Company and Restaurant, a place for unique food and craft beer.
Kinghorn says you can head to Ogden and hear from 98-year-old local jazz musician Joe McQueen, stop by a vinyl store and browse records, then grab a local beer in the historic district.
“It’s a mix of independent business and independent spirits,” he says.
The area has even embraced Ogden’s brothel past.
“Drinks are named after legendary madams or heydays of years past,” Kinghorn says. “There’s a lot of local pride and a welcoming culture in general, and there’s a nice seamless transition between the outdoor recreation outside the city and the urban destinations.”
Melva Sine, president and CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association, says the restaurant industry in Utah is the third-fastest growing in the entire nation. Small, unique neighborhoods that want ease, convenience, walkability and health-conscious options are popping up in urban places. There’s even a trend toward smaller restaurants with only 40-50 available seats instead of large-scale eateries with 100-200 seats.
“In a smaller community, you want people to just be comfortable so you want that to be an inviting atmosphere. That’s where we are seeing the smaller restaurants,” says Sine.
People are asking questions like: How close is this restaurant to my home? Is the food locally sourced? Can I walk there? Where’s my nearest coffee shop? Where do I find the nearest fresh food and conversation?
“My granddaughter can walk out of her house and be right there,” she says. “That’s kind of the philosophy.”
Sine says these urban places provide the variety that many residents crave.
“As we see this urban development taking place, look at all the apartment houses being built so a person can just run across the street and enjoy an experience, and only have been home from work for 10 minutes,” Sine says.
Utah houses dozens of imaginative entrepreneurs exploring the brew pub scene as well. Varela says it’s just part of how our urban community continues to develop. Her office wants to celebrate the brewpub scene and get the story out, despite Utah’s liquor laws remaining more conservative than mainstream liquor laws.
“We saw a recent headline in social media that said ‘Utah’s once strict liquor laws are basically dead.’ We had to laugh because there’s certainly some Utahns that would say, ‘No they’re not dead.’ Basically, our perceptions are changing dramatically with these innovative brew pubs. One certainty in Utah is that we will always be tweaking our liquor laws. But we also know there’s a desire to welcome the world.”
So embrace your inner urban pioneer—park your car, walk to the brewpub, then snag a Hale Center Theater show. It’s time to fully experience the renaissance.
Banner photo by Jon Burkholz; courtesy of Visit Salt Lake.