PROVO — It's lunch hour on a late-November afternoon, and business is brisk at Rocco's Tacos and Wing Wagon in a little nook of downtown Provo.
Diners at outdoor tables are talking and laughing, enjoying the weak-but-welcome fall sunlight and the warm food in their plastic trays.
Every so often one of them looks across the street to check on the latest signs of obvious progress at the Provo City Center Temple as construction workers in hard hats and yellow vests — just like the men at one of Rocco's tables — add to the first pieces of the roof and to the tower that eventually will hold the Angel Moroni statue.
The resurrection of the burned-out Provo Tabernacle as a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a powerful factor among many driving a surprising regeneration of Provo's downtown that includes new apartments, restaurants, music, arts and more.
"This is a totally different city than I remember as a kid," says Rocco's owner C.J. Gandolph, who is 25. "It's not the same Provo I knew growing up."
Gandolph grew up on the corner of University Avenue and Center Street, helping at his father's Gandolfo's Deli. He also helped at the Gandolfo's in downtown Salt Lake City and watched in awe as the state's capital city was transformed by the City Creek development across from the LDS temple there.
"I hope to see the same here," Gandolph said.
The fire that gutted the Provo Tabernacle in December 2010 felt like a major loss to Provoans until LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced in October 2011 that a temple would rise from the tabernacle's ashes.
"I felt we were pushing a boulder up a hill with our downtown," Provo Deputy Mayor Corey Norman says. "After the church announced the temple would be built, it seems like our ability to sell the downtown area has reached a tipping point. It's significant for our downtown. It's fantastic."
Just as with City Creek, high-end apartments are expected, just a few feet east of Rocco's Tacos. Named "63 East," the project will reach six stories, with retail shops on the first floor and luxury apartments with a temple view above.
A few blocks west on Center Street, 150 high-density downtown apartments have been announced, with more new space for shops and offices.
"The whole area's transforming," said Erik Winger, an employee at Nu Skin, the temple's next-door neighbor. Nu Skin is engaged in its own major construction project on Center Street, the $100 million Innovation Center, which will add more of the company's workers to the downtown area.
There is more to what's happening downtown, but Provoans can't seem to get enough about the progress on the temple site, which drew international interest when the brick façade of the tabernacle stood for months on a patchwork of stilts.
The tabernacle's walls had been five bricks thick. Two layers of those bricks were removed due to damage or for other use in the project, but the rest of the outside walls were salvaged and are being incorporated into the temple.
In October, workers added steel beams for the roof and the base for the central tower. Now decking is being added to both the roof and the tower base. The tabernacle was dedicated in 1898 with a central tower, but it was removed in 1917 when the roof sagged under its weight.
The temple's central tower will be a striking new feature, then, especially with its Angel Moroni statue, typical of most temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The temple site now has an information booth manned by young LDS Church missionaries from the Provo Mission. Two missionaries at a time take one-hour shifts answering questions and teaching passers-by about temples.
On Wednesday, a missionary said the tower that caused the roof to sag nearly 100 years ago moved the edges of the building, making it impossible to build a perfectly symmetrical roof. Instead each individual piece on the roof is a different measurement, said Elder Abbott, who is from Phoenix.
Abbott said temple is still expected to be completed in spring 2015, about three years after the May 2012 groundbreaking.
Gandolph says Provo's downtown already draws more pedestrians, which was confirmed by his neighbor, Rachel Christensen, owner of Gloria's Little Italy Italian Restaurant, which sits kitty-corner from the temple site.
Other daytime shoppers and diners come from the Nu Skin campus, the renovation of the Central Bank building at 65 N. University, the $42 million Utah Valley Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, the Wells Fargo tower and Zions Bank tower.
"With the new convention center and the renovated Marriott Hotel, we got a lot of tourists," Gandolph said. "There's a lot more foot traffic. I'm really excited."
That's not all. To the surprise of many, Provo has turned into a thriving market for new musical talent, and the music clubs a block north of the temple spill college kids out the doors most nights of the week.
"The music scene across the street is really bringing in a night life," Gandolph said.
City fathers hope the new apartments add to the sense of a walkable community.
"The excitement that comes from the anticipated boost to the economy and the quality of life that comes from the temple is having a major impact," Provo Mayor John Curtis said. "I expect property values to go up around the temple. I expect owners around the temple will improve the way they landscape and care for yards and gardens. It's even raised the bar for the way the city takes care of property."11 comments on this story
The city's façade program provides grants for downtown businesses to upgrade their look. The façade on the building on the northwest corner of University and Center streets got a bright, new touch-up early last week.
Nu Skin's Winger left his work space Wednesday in the company's high-rise overlooking the temple site and walked around the block to get a ground-floor look at all the progress on both the temple and Nu Skin campuses.
"It's a landmark for the city," he said of the tabernacle/temple. "It would have been strange not having it here, like losing a friend. The temple will make it a nicer, prettier, friendly area."