Should the Utah State Fair be moved from its current location, the decision of what to do with the 65-acre fairground property should be approached as a rare opportunity to create something beyond a typical commercial and residential development.
The Legislature has directed the State Division of Facilities and Construction Management to come up with a master plan for the fairgrounds as part of a process that may or may not involve moving the fair to a new location — or ending the annual celebration altogether.
The discussion of the future of the Utah State Fair is an important one, but one that should remain separate from the question of what to do with the land. It is currently underutilized solely as a venue for an annual event that has suffered from dwindling attendance.
Some have talked of turning the property over to private concerns for transit-oriented development. That thinking is a good start, but still too inside-the-box. The nature and location of the fairgrounds offers a chance for some fresh and innovative thinking about recrafting the development mold across our metropolitan landscape.
One bold example of such efforts can be found in the Phoenix area, which has pioneered a new kind of grass-roots economic development. A 42-acre parcel of land in Scottsdale turned over to the Arizona State University Foundation more than a decade ago now houses SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center.
SkySong is home to 50 startup companies that currently employ about 1,000 people. It has contracted with private developers to include retail and residential components. A $44 million apartment complex with 325 units recently opened, and the center has partnered with a private firm to build a 10,500-square-foot retail center that would includes shops and restaurants.
The SkySong center is a campus where entrepreneurial efforts are encouraged, nurtured and eventually housed. Proponents of such projects talk about the value of “densifying the ecosystem” for startup businesses by concentrating elements necessary for entrepreneurship in a common setting. Developers of a similar innovation center underway in Canada say they have been influenced by the success of SkySong and other similar developments in Boulder, Colorado, and Austin, Texas.
These centers are commonly tied to educational institutions that oversee development plans with ambitions that transcend a purely commercial motivation to fill vacancies and maximize lease revenue.
Such a project at the fairgrounds property would mesh nicely with the University of Utah’s already established reputation for fostering entrepreneurship. Other educational institutions are also well equipped to oversee, or at least participate in, such a venture. Salt Lake Community College, with its burgeoning growth and emphasis on vocational curricula, comes quickly to mind.
The Fairpark area is a vibrant and diverse community on the cusp of change. City and state leaders should view the disposition of the fairgrounds as a chance to engage in the kind of forward thinking that will help that neighborhood move forward in a way that contributes to the larger community.