Farmington may be the geographical center and county seat of Davis County, but Layton with its mall, 26 movie theaters, "restaurant row" and surrounding businesses has become the unofficial gathering place.

Just 20 years ago, this section of Layton was a cow pasture along the freeway. Today it is the county's retail/entertainment mecca with just about every modern shopping and eating opportunity available. The addition of a county convention center, a nine-story hotel and an eight-story office complex in the next several years will enhance that image even more.According to Layton economic development specialist Tom Christopulos, the area is more than just a county draw, it's become a regional center for shopping and entertainment.

He's certain the area is more popular than ever because more residents of south Davis County and beyond are coming to Layton to avoid all the road construction in downtown Salt Lake City, as well as I-15 reconstruction.

Davis County Community and Economic Development Director Wilford Sommerkorn agrees that the Layton Hills Mall area is the retail focal point for the county. He said 10 to 15 years ago, Bountiful held that designation, but all the economic growth in Layton has made it the new hotbed of activity.

On weekend evenings, the I-15 offramp south of the Layton Hills Mall is backed up almost to the freeway lanes, but there's still relatively easy access here, and the high concentration of eateries, movie screens and shopping is probably unrivaled anywhere else in the state.

The opening this summer of 700 West Street between the mall and Antelope Drive should improve access - especially during the busy holiday shopping season.

Christopulos said at least two more restaurants will be arriving in conjunction with the hotel/conference center. One will likely be an Italian restaurant, on a pad near the hotel. The other, yet undetermined, will be inside the hotel.

"We have a pretty good mix of restaurants," he said, explaining there are four to five more in a small area than anywhere else in the state. "We've got a lot more restaurants than I ever thought we'd have."

Layton's restaurants are more "middle-of-the-road" offerings, but Christopulos believes the eateries and the theaters complement each other well.

He said the 26 movie screens, operated by two different companies, have done as well as expected. They draw crowds.

Christopulos admits he doesn't like such crowds, and so he's likely to frequent the area on a weekday evening, such as Tuesday.

He also sees this "gathering place" as more than just the area around the mall - he believes it extends a mile westward, past Wal-Mart and Sam's Club.

In fact, Bountiful residents who want to shop at a Wal-Mart are closer to Layton than they are the stores in Murray, Midvale or Sandy.

On this west side, Layton's plan is to have more construction-related businesses around the new Anderson Lumber, now under construction on west Hill Field Road. To the northwest are 67 more acres that the city wants developed as a future business and research park area.

That will complement the Davis County Convention Center and hotel - to be located north of the mall. Sommerkorn said the official groundbreaking is planned for September. Completion is expected in December 1999.

"It will change the whole character of the area," he said.

The two high-rise buildings will be the tallest structures in Davis County.

Sommerkorn anticipates the development will attract more corporate headquarters to Layton.

That means the area will finally have what it needs most - more high-paying jobs to reduce commuting out of the county.

On the hotel side, there's still apparently a battle going on between the Radisson and the Hilton to land the contract.

Christopulos said the city doesn't have a preference between the two hotels. Both are excellent and will complete a range of lodging in the city from budget to first class, he said.

North of the Layton Hills Mall, less than 30 acres of vacant ground is left near restaurant row. Layton wants some other Class "A" office space to go there.

Class "A" offices are considered high-rise structures with lots of glass or fancy marble design. The city already has some of the more elaborate Class "B" offices in the area with its Heritage Park Development.

Christopulos sees office space as the next step of progression in the area.

"We're getting the varied elements," he said.

The current mix of restaurants, theaters and shopping creates a busy nighttime atmosphere. The city business offices that will be locating there should create a busy daytime use of the area, too.

Linda Kelley, manager of the Layton Hills Mall, is excited about the prospects of office buildings going in on the north. She agrees it should increase the mall's daytime shopping and the restaurants' luncheon usage.

She's high on the Layton Hills Mall's success, and even though citywide sales tax revenues have flattened out, the mall's sales revenues continue to grow.

The mall recently added a Lady Foot Locker store, while the main Foot Locker store expanded. The Gap store has also completed an extensive remodeling. and a Gymboree children's clothing store is due to arrive at the mall soon.

There's also a possibility the mall could be expanded soon with an add-on at the north end, similar to last year's east addition. A major new mall tenant is also a possibility.

Also, the former Ernst building on the mall's ring road may receive a new tenant in the next few months.

A Michaels arts and crafts store and an Office Depot have opened north of the mall near SuperTarget, completing the major store spaces available there.

In addition, a new traffic signal on Antelope Drive, near Super-Target, will begin operation soon and should improve accessibility of that shopping area.

The Traveler's Inn, located south of the mall, has become a Comfort Inn.