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Ravell Call, Deseret News
A performer poses as a tree during a gala at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, March 21, 2012.

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SALT LAKE CITY — While thousands are anticipated to line up Thursday morning to be among the first to experience City Creek Center, a lucky few made a charitable donation to get a sneak preview the night before the official grand opening.

Exactly 2,000 people paid for the privilege to be the first patrons at downtown's most high-profile mixed-use development in more than a decade. And from all indications, they were not disappointed.

"It's nicer than I thought it would be," said Jason Kerr of Kaysville. "The quality of the workmanship, the design, the architecture, how it flows and fits together."

Kerr said he expected "more of mall feel," but the new shopping center that stretches across three blocks in the heart of downtown adds numerous unique elements that make it more than a typical retail center.

"This is like The Gateway on steroids," Kerr said. "It's very impressive."

The more than 80 stores and restaurants at City Creek Center officially open Thursday, with ceremonies at 9:30 a.m.

The City Creek Charity gala raised $100,000 for four local charitable organizations, including The Road Home, Ballet West, Junior League of Salt Lake and Utah's Hogle Zoo. All of the money raised from ticket sales directly benefit the charities, according to City Creek Center general manager Linda Wardell.

The patrons were also the first to see the center's retractable roof and fountains in full operation, including the centerpiece that featured flames dancing within the cascading water. The overall experience drew rave reviews from those in attendance.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Draper resident Chris Webb. "It's very cool."

Webb, along with his wife, Amy, brought their three young children, ages four months to five years. She said the center is "more high-end than you'd expect than just a regular mall," comparing it to some of the high-profile shopping centers in Las Vegas.

"It fits in well with the city and the surrounding architecture," she explained.

The $1.5 billion project, which includes more than 500 apartments and condominiums, was developed by City Creek Reserve Inc. — a for-profit real estate company owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Project partner Taubman Inc. of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., will operate the retail portion of the project.

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