Downtown visits

SALT LAKE CITY — Becky Christensen of Grace, Idaho, travels 300 miles round-trip about five times a year to shop in downtown Salt Lake City.

Michael and Bridget Williams of Provo make their way to the capital city a couple of times a month to visit attractions such as Temple Square and Hogle Zoo.

And Matthew and Crystal Kendall of Salt Lake City enjoy spending time at The Gateway — "when we have money," Crystal Kendall says.

A recent survey for the Downtown Alliance indicates Utahns' perceptions of Salt Lake City are on the rise — much like the capital city itself.

Thirty-five percent of Utahns surveyed said their perceptions of downtown had improved over the past 12 months, while 52 percent said it stayed the same. Twelve percent said their perception of the city had gotten worse in the past year.

The survey of 406 adult Utahns was conducted in August and September by Lighthouse Research, with Richter7 donating services to direct and compile the research. The poll has a 4.9 percent margin of error.

Dining is the top downtown draw, with 40 percent of respondents identifying it as the reason for recent visits to Salt Lake City. Shopping was next at 36 percent, followed by religious services or events — including general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — at 34 percent.

"A lot of people are coming downtown and are excited about downtown," Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance.

Longtime downtown attractions and events such as the holiday lights at Temple Square and the Days of '47 Parade remain big draws to the capital city, Mathis said. And annual events such as the Utah Arts Festival, the Downtown Farmers Market and the three-day New Year's celebration EVE exceeded attendance expectations in the past year, he said.

"Those events often attract people who haven't come downtown for a while," Mathis said. "They get down here, and they think, 'Wow, this place is even better than I remembered.' "

Mathis also cited progress on downtown construction projects — including the LDS Church's massive City Creek Center development — as a reason Utahns' perceptions of downtown are improving. The Downtown Alliance plans to work closely with City Creek Reserve Inc. and project partner Taubman Co. to promote the 2012 opening of the 20-acre retail, residential and office development.

The still-in-progress state of the project in the heart of downtown also presents some challenges for Salt Lake City. The city's shopping hot spot has shifted from Main Street to 400 West, at The Gateway.

Tanya Lewis, a Sandy resident who works in downtown Salt Lake City, says The Gateway is really the only place she shops downtown.

"My main aversion to shopping downtown is with the construction and closures of different intersections — it's kind of a pain to drive around," Lewis said. "I understand that City Creek is going to be great when it's done, but right now (the construction) causes a lot of problems."

When she does shop downtown, Lewis says she spends her money at The Gateway. And for now, she avoids the two-block area bordered by West Temple, South Temple, 200 East and 100 South, where City Creek Center is taking shape.

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"I'm going to wait until it's all done, and then there will be a reason to go," Lewis said. "I think we have a great experience in the making, and I'm excited for when it will all be done."

Twenty-five percent of respondents to the survey identified traffic congestion as the main barrier to visiting downtown. Even though that's 1-in-4, Mathis noted that it's 6 percent better than a year ago.

"We still have our work cut out for us in some regards," Mathis said, "but there has been a definite tipping point in terms of perception about Utah's capital city, and we're excited about that."