Survey shows young people want to live, dine, shop downtown

Published: Monday, Oct. 10 2011 8:02 p.m. MDT

Clockwise from bottom left, Dena Cottle, Lien Van, Kim Tran, Thida Tran and Khang Tran eat at the Market Street Oyster Bar in downtown Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 10, 2011.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The message is loud and clear: Young people want to live, shop, dine and party downtown.

And elected officials and business leaders are anxious to accommodate them.

"Young people are really interested in their downtown," said Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, citing results Monday from a survey measuring statewide interest in downtown Salt Lake City.

The survey, conducted for the Downtown Alliance in August and September by Light House Research and compiled by Richter7, shows that young people ages 18 to 24 are more interested in living, dining, shopping, attending sporting and community events and taking part in the nightlife downtown than other age groups.

Utahns ages 24 to 34 also show a high interest in those activities, according to the survey. Despite that high level of interest in downtown by young people, just 22 percent of Utahns say the biggest reason for visiting downtown is the nightlife.

Salt Lake City leaders and the Downtown Alliance are hoping to change that, though they'll need some help from the state Legislature.

Both Mathis and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker say the downtown nightlife is being hindered by the lack of state liquor licenses available. And both say they intend to lobby state lawmakers to fix that problem in the next legislative session.

"We know that there are restaurants that want to open up in downtown Salt Lake, in our city and across the Wasatch Front that cannot obtain liquor licenses," Becker said. "We are inhibiting business right now in Salt Lake. … In the past, I have not weighed in on that issue because it has not been a real issue, and today it is."

Mathis says downtown would benefit from having more bars or restaurants that serve liquor close to the Salt Palace Convention Center.

"(It) would make Salt Lake more attractive as a convention destination," he said. "It would make downtown more lively, more vibrant."

City leaders already have overhauled ordinances related to liquor sales, including doing away with a law that allowed only two bars per city block face. And state lawmakers got rid of the "private club hoops people had to jump through," Mathis said.

"These are things that lead to that kind of vibrant dynamic downtown," he said. "Salt Lake City is not Las Vegas. We're not New Orleans. Never will be. Don't want to be. But we can be more hospitable and more welcoming in our downtown area, and our nightlife is a component of that."

Other components of a vibrant downtown — shopping, dining and sporting or performing arts events — continue to attract more and more people to downtown, the survey indicates.

Dining is the biggest reason people are coming downtown, with 63 percent of survey respondents saying that's the reason they've visited Salt Lake City in the past six months. Shopping was second with 54 percent, followed by religious services and events — including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' general conference — with 47 percent.

Overall, 65 percent of Utahns surveyed said they've visited downtown between one and 10 times in the past six months. A year ago, that number was 57 percent.

"We're very encouraged that people are looking so much more positively about downtown Salt Lake City," Becker said. "Our commitment is to continue with the kinds of improvements that we can make (and) be responsive to what we're hearing from our public."

As a result of the survey, Mathis said the Downtown Alliance intends to focus its marketing efforts on younger audiences.

"People age 18 to 24 really, really want to live in their city center, and I think that's a direction we need to consider as a community," Mathis said, suggesting that more investment be made in affordable housing downtown. "They want to be invited to live in the downtown area."

Events unique to Salt Lake City that cater to young people — including the Twilight Concert Series, Utah Arts Festival and the New Year's celebration EVE — also will be a focus of that marketing campaign, Mathis said.

"These are events that don't happen in any other community," he said. "That's something we can capitalize on and encourage people to continue to engage with our downtown."

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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