It was a $375 million leap of faith, over naysayers and critics, budget brambles and seemingly unattainable deadlines.
But Jake Boyer, project manager of the hotly anticipated Gateway development west of downtown Salt Lake City, said the end result is better than he ever could have imagined.
"We took a huge risk," Boyer said. "We started construction when we had zero leases signed. Nobody had signed on when we broke ground. But we believed in it, and the pieces came together."
Indeed, pieces are furiously coming together in the days before Gateway's scheduled Nov. 1 grand opening. Construction companies have been working 24-hour days since spring in order to meet the November deadline.
Stepping around fresh concrete and under plastic that still hung from doorways while dodging paint that dripped from painters' brushes, Boyer laughed.
"Every day it's amazing how much gets done," he said. "This is a work in progress. But we will hit our deadline. The majority of the tenants will be open. If you come down on Nov. 1, it won't feel like we've opened prematurely."
Tenants include trendy clothiers Abercrombie & Fitch, bebe, J. Crew and J. Jill; Anthropologie, a popular home furnishings and apparel store; and family-oriented stores like Build-A-Bear, where shoppers custom-make their own stuffed bears.
Gateway also will be home to a 12-screen movie theater, restaurants, the Children's Museum of Utah, Hansen Planetarium, offices and apartments.
About 60 of the 80-odd tenants will be ready to go on Nov. 1, Boyer said. Others will open in the weeks and months preceding the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in February. The Children's Museum and planetarium have post-Olympics opening dates.
There are still a few vacancies, as well as ongoing lease negotiations with a few notable would-be Gatewayers, like the House of Blues.
But Boyer refused to fret over a few empty storefronts.
"There hasn't been a shortage of interest," he said. "I think it's in our best interest to have some vacancies. We want to be as selective or more so as anyone else in putting people in, because we really want the right mix."
Sur La Table is in the mix, and owner Renee Behnke said her cookware store will fit nicely into Utahns' lives.
"There's all this talk about Mormons, and Mormons do play a large role in the community," Behnke said. "But they also eat at home, they have kids, they entertain and they have money. Maybe it's not yet a huge tourist-driven area, but there are so many people living and moving there. And it's such a great way of life."
Sur La Table carries more than 12,000 products, from high end silver and the most expensive cookware to affordable napkin holders and cookie cutters. The store also will offer cooking classes, some hosted by world-renowned chefs.
The company had compiled information indicating Utahns had shopped Sur La Table's e-commerce site, and at its stores in other states. So when the right opportunity came along, Behnke said she knew the time had come to bring Sur La Table to Utah.
California Pizza Kitchen also will make its first appearance in Utah at the Gateway. Well-known for its unusual beginnings the company was founded by two former attorneys who decided to try their hand in the pizza business and for its original BBQ Chicken Pizza, California Pizza Kitchen has spread from its roots to more than 25 other states.
Co-founder Larry Flax said that, like Sur La Table, CPK was just waiting for the right Utah venue.
"The Gateway was a tremendous opportunity to enter the market," Flax said. "We're getting a chance to go into a great new project, in a market we had been looking at. Gateway was the catalyst, but Salt Lake was on the map in terms of cities we wanted to expand into."
Flax and Behnke both jokingly said they weren't exactly dissuaded by the fact that Salt Lake was the next Olympic city, either. And that Gateway was within feet of one of the premier Olympics venues (the Delta Center, which will host figure skating and short track speedskating) and the medals plaza.
"We weren't unaware of the fact that the Olympics were coming," Flax said. "That obviously is a tremendous indicator in the selection of a site. It's really nice to open a new market with the opening of a new project that will get a lot of attention and is well-centered."
The Gateway will play a significant, if somewhat peripheral, role in the Games. Visiting media will be housed in the apartments above the complex's retail space, Boyer said. Official television broadcaster NBC will run some of its operations out of the soon-to-be completed Children's Museum. The Navajo Nation will hold its cultural Olympiad at Gateway's "Olympic Legacy Plaza," which also will include Olympic pavers, an Olympic wall of honor and a fountain in the shape of the Olympic snowflake.
Gateway also was painstakingly designed to represent the people and history of Utah, said Jon Jerde, chairman of Jerde Partnership International, the Los Angeles-based master planners and design architects for the project.
"There is a unique culture in Salt Lake which brings with it a great tradition and a great history," Jerde said. "All of those things were brought to bear in the architecture. It really tries to pay homage to the 19th Century, and the development of the city, without being kitschy or corny."
Workers preserved original tiling in the Union Pacific Depot and original sandstone for the walkways, Boyer said. Red rocks were brought in to frame a waterfall, hearkening back to City Creek. Original stonework was replicated to preserve the original face of the Depot.
Jerde called the Gateway the "completing piece" of Salt Lake's downtown mural, a sentiment Boyer shared. And, perhaps, a quiet answer to what have been rumbling criticisms of the project.
Critics have questioned whether Gateway would drive business away from the independent "Main Street" businesses, sounding the death knell for an already-gasping central city shopping environment.
Boyer said that was never the intent, nor did the complex recruit potential tenants from nearby malls and shopping centers.
"I think this will be one of the most monumental additions to our city," he said. "It will enhance our entire downtown. I think development will continue to branch out from this project. If you can bring people downtown, it benefits everyone. It benefits Main Street. It's a catalyst, a magnet."
Downtown Merchants Association spokesman Richard M. Wirick admitted he had been among the skeptics.
"Two years ago, I appeared before the City Council and kind of objected to the amount of square footage of retail space at the project," Wirick said. "People ask me now if I've changed my tune. But I say adaptability is the key to success.
"The fact that the Gateway is connected to the rest of downtown by the free light rail zone unites us and makes our experience downtown even that much more enjoyable. With the addition of the Gateway, we now truly have one of the finest downtowns in America."
And that bodes well for the growth of Salt Lake City, and Utah, Boyer said.