SALT LAKE CITY — If members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints learned anything during last October's general conference, it is the way conference can change their lives.
Granted, there is rarely the kind of far-reaching social and cultural impact Latter-day Saints have experienced during the six months that have elapsed since church President Thomas S. Monson sent shock waves through Mormonism with his Saturday morning announcement lowering the minimum age for full-time missionary service for both young men and young women. Still, as LDS faithful gather this weekend at the church's downtown Conference Center and in front of television sets, radios and computer screens all around the world, they do so fully anticipating to be impacted again individually and collectively by the 183rd Annual General Conference of the church.
For Latter-day Saints, the ways they may be affected are largely spiritual and deeply personal. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the church's First Presidency, said, "There are messages in each general conference given as a gift and a blessing from heaven specifically for our personal life situations."
But there are other more physical, tangible effects every six months as general conference is held in the city that serves as the church's world headquarters. Those effects, felt by church members and non-Latter-day Saints alike, are also anticipated — and appreciated.
“Obviously it’s a positive impact to have 100,000 people coming downtown,” said Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance. “Our downtown area has changed pretty dramatically in the past few years. And there are more exciting changes to come during the next two years.”
Mathis said public opinion surveys indicate religious activities are one of the main reasons people come to downtown Salt Lake City. “Our challenge,” he said, “is getting the people who come downtown for conference or to visit Temple Square or church headquarters to move past the City Creek Center and experience the rest of downtown.”
Conversely, Salt Lake City Council Chair Kyle LaMalfa grew up in Salt Lake City but never went to Temple Square — at least, not until last October when he attended a general conference session for the first time. He was impressed with how nice and friendly everyone was, and now he’s more committed than ever to help those nice people move freely throughout the city’s downtown area.
“We’re not interested in taking away from the reverence of general conference,” he said. “But we do want to make sure that when people are here in the city they are able to enjoy all that we have to offer.”
To that end, he said, city officials are working on several initiatives that should be in place by the LDS Church’s 183rd Semiannual General Conference in October. While he declined to share details of those initiative, he did say that "this isn’t about trying to get conference-goers to spend more money in Salt Lake City or anything like that. It’s about this city and helping people to enjoy it — all of it.”
Meanwhile, just like landscapers on Temple Square, businesses in the downtown area — especially those closest to the Conference Center — have been making preparations for the expected impacts of this weekend's conference.
“We have to really step up our orders to make sure we have enough food on hand for conference,” said Daniel Hernandez, manager of the Kneaders Bakery and Café at City Creek Center, across the street from the LDS Church complex. “And nobody on the staff gets conference days off.”
Hernandez said that after conference sessions let out, the lines extend out of the restaurant and wrap around the mall.
“Fridays and Saturdays are always busy,” he said. “But conference Fridays and Saturdays are incredible. The only other time we get crowds like that is during the Christmas season. So it’s like Christmas in April.”
Sergio Flores, manager of the Taste of Red Iguana Mexican food location in the City Creek Center Food Court, agreed.
“It’s like a holiday — like the Friday before Christmas,” he said of the conference crowd. “I don’t even know where they sit — a lot of them probably stand to eat.”
Flores said extra staff and food supplies are critical for conference weekend — not to mention understanding a few peculiarities of the general conference schedule.
“Usually on a Saturday night things are winding down by 8 o’clock and we’re starting to clean things up and get ready to close,” he said. “But we’ve learned that at 8 o’clock on a conference Saturday we’re going to get crushed when the priesthood meeting lets out. This place is going to be filled with guys in white shirts and ties.”
Other stores in the downtown area are similarly impacted by general conference crowds. Nathan Foster, assistant manager of the City Creek Center’s Fanzz Sports Apparel store, said general conference weekend is “definitely a lot crazier than normal days.”
“There’s definitely a spike in sales,” he said, “and there are a few more work hours for everyone. We’re calling in all of our employees — we may need to borrow some help from some of the other Fanzz stores in the valley.”
And that’s a good thing. “Busy is what we like,” he said, even though conference Saturday has its unique challenges.
“Nobody wants to go back into conference carrying a Fanzz bag,” he said. “So we get a lot of people who just come in to check us out. Getting them to buy, that tests us.”
Nate Christensen is new to the Disney Store at City Creek Center, but he’s heard “it’s going to be awesome!”
“We have a huge shipment coming in on Thursday in preparation for the weekend,” Christensen said. “Our corporate offices know all about general conference — they know what’s going to happen here that day.”
What’s going to happen, he said, is an interesting connection between the LDS Church and Disney.
“They are both all about family,” he said, “and since there aren’t a lot of kid-oriented stores here at City Creek, we get a lot of families after conference sessions.”
Which Christensen thinks is sort of a bonus for the City Creek Disney Store.
“The church is inviting all these people downtown this weekend,” he said. “We get to share in that.”
That is especially true at Deseret Book, a store that specializes in LDS-oriented books, art and other merchandise.
“We can always tell when a session is over,” said Deseret Book vice president Jeff Clark, who also manages the City Creek store. “We don’t have to look at a clock. We just look outside — we can see the exodus coming across South Temple.”
Clark said the crowds grow larger every day during the week leading up to general conference. Saturday evening is “Ladies' Night,” with special sales and programs for women while the LDS men are in priesthood meeting.
“Because of our proximity to the Conference Center, it gets pretty crazy in here after the Saturday afternoon session,” he said. “Sisters feel the conference is over for them, and they can come in here and have a good time. It will be packed literally shoulder-to-shoulder in some places in the store. It’s just crazy.”
A little further west on South Temple at Utah Woolen Mills, things are a little less crazy but still extremely busy during general conference, according to Bart Stringham, the third generation owner of the 108-year-old downtown mainstay.
“We have a lot more people come in during conference, and probably a 10-15 percent increase in sales,” he said. “We look forward to conference.”
For Eldon Cannon, group manager for grounds services on the church's multi-block campus in downtown Salt Lake City, the impactful busy-ness of general conference is already over.
“We’ve pulled the frost blankets and cleaned up the flower beds," Cannon said. "We put an early spring fertilizer on the lawns to wake them up and help them green quicker. We’ve battled a little pink snow mold here and there. And we’ve pulled a lot of weeds.”
Cannon said each year crews finish taking down hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights around the church offices and Temple Square about mid-February. That’s when the pre-conference clean up and perk up begins, as crews — including hundreds of volunteers — carefully execute the plans of landscape designers who paint living landscapes from a palette of 450 different types, sizes and colors of flowers.
“We would be doing all of this for spring anyway,” he said. “But with general conference in early April, that pushes us to get things looking nice as quickly as we can.”
Which is not to say that “looking nice” is the ultimate objective, as far as Cannon is concerned.
“The real purpose behind it all is we believe that the message we have to share at general conference is a very important message,” he said. “But if our grounds look slovenly and sloppy and unkempt, who’s going to pay attention?
“We need to be good stewards of the earth,” he continued. “We try to set an example of what it means to beautify the earth and take good care of it. It’s part of our message, part of the process of living a good life.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company