The old tabernacle was important to this community. Even though the building was owned by the LDS Church, it was very much a community center. There were plays and shows and graduations and community events there, as well as the things the LDS Church used it for. —Dixon Holmes, deputy mayor in the Mayor's Office of Economic Development
PROVO — Even though it isn't scheduled for completion until sometime in 2015, Provo City officials believe the new Provo City Center Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a blessing to their city's downtown area aesthetically, spiritually and economically.
"After the (December 2010) fire that pretty much gutted the church's old Provo Tabernacle, they could have tipped it over and sold the property or done anything they wanted with it," said Dixon Holmes, deputy mayor in the Mayor's Office of Economic Development. "But instead, they felt a commitment to downtown Provo, they put a stake in the ground and said, 'We're going to invest in this area.'"
The LDS Church's investment has included the decision to salvage and restore as much of the old tabernacle as possible and to design the new temple as a respectful homage to the venerable tabernacle.
Sources close to the construction project say the restoration approach, which has included building a new shell inside the fire-scarred bricks of the old building and putting the entire structure on stilts while two new subground floors are constructed, is much more expensive than simply bulldozing the old building to the ground and building something completely new.
For which Holmes said the community is grateful.
"The old tabernacle was important to this community," Holmes said. "Even though the building was owned by the LDS Church, it was very much a community center. There were plays and shows and graduations and community events there, as well as the things the LDS Church used it for."
In addition to the church's investment in the structure of the new temple itself, it has also been acquiring additional properties in the area, including a nearby motel and restaurant and a parking structure.
Rumors have also circulated that the LDS Church is in negotiations with the U.S. Postal Service for its property on the block immediately to the south of where the new temple is located and that an acquisition of that property is imminent. But while Holmes said the acquisition would certainly make sense, Postal Service officials denied any negotiations are currently taking place.
"The Postal Service announced in 2011 that its infrastructure was too large and it was going to begin conducting studies of its facilities for possible consolidation opportunities," said Brian Sperry, a regional spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service. "There are studies being conducted in the facilities in Provo, Utah, to see if any consolidation opportunities exist there."
Outside sources indicate that the sale of post office land requires the determination first be made to sell the property, followed by public notice that the property is available for purchase through open bidding.
But, Sperry said, "no office is for sale at this time" and "there are no negotiations occurring with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
When asked about the possibility of the church acquiring the post office land, LDS Church spokeswoman Ruth Todd would only say that the church "will announce any new developments once they are finalized."
Although some in the community have expressed regret that the new temple will not be available to the entire community for public events as was the old tabernacle (once the temple is dedicated it will only be open to active, practicing Latter-day Saints who have been recommended by their ecclesiastical leaders to perform sacred religious rites and ordinances), Holmes believes it will still serve a vital function in the downtown community's growth and development.
"This building will still draw people downtown," he said. "People will want to see it. They'll want to get out and walk around the grounds and enjoy the peace and quiet that will be there. And while they are there they will want to see what else is downtown, or get something to eat. I just can't see anything but good coming from having the temple in the heart of the city."
The commitment to Provo's downtown community continues a recent pattern of the LDS Church in investing in urban areas where its temples are located, Holmes said.
"Look at what they have done in downtown Salt Lake City, with the new City Creek Center across the street from the Salt Lake Temple, and what they are doing around the Ogden Temple in downtown Ogden," he said. "The church is clearly interested in what is happening in and around their temples, and they are reaching out into those communities and trying to make a positive difference."
The impact of the LDS Church's $1.5 billion City Creek Center development on downtown Salt Lake City has been well documented.
“Most of the good things that are happening in downtown are being driven by City Creek Center," Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, told the Deseret News earlier this year. “To walk down Main Street today you see four or five storefronts that are being built, and everything else is full. Over the past few years, there have been hundreds of new businesses that have opened up.”
Similarly, Mark Johnson, chief administrative officer of the city of Ogden, said the ongoing remodeling of the LDS temple in downtown Ogden, along with the church's development of properties surrounding the temple, "have really caught the eye of a lot of developers."
"The fact that the church always does such a first-class job with any project is attractive to developers," Johnson said. "They look at what the church is doing and they say, 'We want to be a part of that.'"
Johnson said new businesses and residential developments are revitalizing downtown Ogden, and he said he suspects "when the temple reopens it will bring it back even more."
Completion of the Ogden Temple renovation is expected in late 2014.
"We appreciate the church coming in and trying to kind of protect the temple (with improvements to surrounding areas)," Johnson said. "The church's help has magnified what we would have been able to do on our own."
In Provo, the Provo City Center Temple is one of several projects already having an impact on city economics. Holmes said other projects such as Nu Skin's Innovation Center next to the temple, the nearby Utah County Convention Center and Central Bank's new construction project have contributed to a current economic climate downtown in which retail sales and occupancy rates are up and vacancies are down.
"It's still too early to see if property tax valuations have been impacted," he said, "but typically those values are going to go up in this kind of scenario."
All of these improvements, he said, attract people and businesses.
"Despite the inconvenience of construction and everything else going on, it's a positive impact, no doubt about it," Holmes said. "It just shows that large institutions like these see a future and promise in making a substantial investment in downtown Provo."