October 1, 2016

Main Street Hangs On For City Creek Center

Weller’s Books is moving off Main Street. Will the other local merchants survive to see the completion of the City Creek Center?

by Jonny Glines and Richard Markosian

city creek center construction

Editor’s Note: A prior version of this story printed in “Salt Lake City’s Other Side” contained an inaccuracy that has since been corrected. The website previously referred to as UtahHistory.com is incorrect. The correct website is Utah.com– which is Utah’s Travel Industry website produced in cooperation with the Utah Office of Tourism and the Deseret News.

Construction on the $1 billion City Creek Center project in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City is progressing on schedule slated for completion in Spring 2012. The project is the only new retail development project in the Salt Lake City area that isn’t plagued by budget shortfalls or construction stoppages due to the current economic climate. This is in large part due to the stability of the financier, Zion Securities–which is the for-profit arm to the LDS Church.


Utah Stories began covering the City Creek Center development three years ago by interviewing the merchants on Main Street gathering their opinions about the project, and their thoughts on how the Salt Lake City has developed as a whole for the past 50 years.

What these merchants told us was much different from the story we are familiar with from the local media or the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce. According the website Utah.com, downtown has never really suffered and the malls 30 years ago were a wonderful addition.

In the 1970s new businesses and shopping malls were built and classic older buildings were renovated. City-wide beautification projects generated vitality and activity in the downtown community.
–Utah.com

What this story never mentions is how the malls monopolized the buying public and lured shoppers away. Subsequently, years after the completion of the two downtown malls, the mostly locally-owned South end of Main Street (at Broadway and Exchange Place) completely collapsed: Broadway Music, Auerbachs Department Store, Wolf’s Sporting Goods, Paris Company and Keith O’Brien (men’s store) were all decimated due to the malls. Apparently the people who wrote Utah.com weren’t aware of this. This wouldn’t be so troubling if this weren’t the number one Google ranked page for Salt Lake City history.

Salt Lake City History

Historic Downtown Salt Lake City (circa 1950)

This rosy picture painted of Salt Lake City’s recent history also ignored the modern reality that the Gateway Mall –completed just prior to the 2002 Olympics 5 blocks west of Main Street–made downtown Salt Lake City’s retail district irrelevant. Gateway accelerated the decline of the existing two downtown malls–and Main Street retail was all but dead. Before Gateway, Main Street beautification projects, TRAX construction street closures also forced several downtown merchants out of business.

But certainly City Creek Center offers a reason for optimisim. The project is expected to turn Main Street into a beautiful, walkable, urban community. The new center will correct some of the design mistakes of the malls. The City Creek Center is reincarnating Richards Street and Regence Street, which had been built over to form the large mall structures.

Considering the track record of past Main Street revival projects, the downtown merchants have reason to be skeptical of the promises that City Creek Center will solve all of downtown’s problems. The store owners we spoke to who rent from Zion Securities are optimistic that the project will be a big success.

Utah Woolen Mills’ Opinions

Utah Woolen Mills is a family business that started in 1905. Located on 59 West, South Temple, the store is in the middle of City Creek Center construction. Despite being surrounded by cranes, giant earth movers and rising buildings, Utah’s finest suites fabrics and overcoats are offered at Utah Woolen Mills. “We know there will be problems, we expect that with construction, but [Okland Construction] has been very responsive to any of our complaints,” said BJ Stringham of Utah Woolen Mills.

Utah Woolen Mills
BJ Stringham of Utah Woolen Mills.

“The problem isn’t the occasional fumes. It’s the declining amount of walking traffic that is hurting local downtown merchants. “Main Street Salt Lake City was once a vibrant place. As the city became more involved with the beautification processes and making the sidewalks wider, [store owners] lost the parking stalls.” said Stringham. “When [former Mayor] Rocky Anderson was in office, they started giving $20,000 incentive offers to get businesses to come back and try Main Street. With the City Creek project, we’d like to see the amount of traffic come back before all of the construction began.”


Utah Woolen Mills is located in a Zion Securities-owned building. With 80 years remaining on their lease, private parking, and loyal customers they knew despite being in the middle of construction they could still survive. Thirty years ago they negotiated this lease arrangement with Zion Securities when their former building located on Richards Street was razed to build the Crossroads Mall. They are one of the few stores that did not go out of business or relocate as the mall declined and City Creek began. Bart Stringham says it’s because they made it clear to Zion’s Securities–the profit arm of the LDS Church–under no circumstances did they want to be located in the mall, but instead in their own building, with their own parking. According to Stringham, their autonomy has been the key factor in their success. Utah Wollen Mills, along with 57-year-old Utah business Bennion Jewelers were among the few local stores that were able to stay in their locations.

Bennion Jewelers– Mike Lawrence

“People will come back. When downtown is done, there won’t be another place like it in the country,” said Mike Lawrence of Bennion Jewelers. Bennion Jewelers started in 1952 and was previously a bullion maker during the pioneer days of the gold rush. “With downtown, we get the double whammy. The economy is hurting everybody, not just downtown. But when you get both malls completely torn out and you have to deal with all this construction on top of the economy, it gets a lot tougher. You weren’t expecting it to happen all at the same time” Lawrence said.

Bennion Jewelers
Mike Lawrence of Bennion Jewelers.

To many, this “double-whammy effect” results from the City Creek project, but many believe the new development is also the antidote when completed. Both Bennion Jewelers and Utah Woolen Mills specialize in custom high-end products. The City Creek Center condominiums will be high-end real estate that could attract a wealthy demographic to reside in the area. As the saying goes: more money means more money to be spent.

“Utah has a lot to offer, but when you get tourists that want to do everything down here, there’s really nothing here for them. I know that people come down here and it looks awful, but when it gets finished, people are going to want to be down here…A lot of the tourists will come back. I think once it’s done, it will be a really fun place to visit,” said Lawrence.

Tony Weller’s Opinions

Tony Weller is the charismatic, opinionated owner of Utah’s oldest bookstore. Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore is just South of the construction in an area that has recently improved considerably with recent arrivals of KUTV News, City Weekly and Keys On Main (offering live dueling pianists). According to Weller, a common occurrence upon completion of a mall is that it flourishes due to the buzz. But soon, the novelty of the new mall wears out and consumers change focus from “latest and greatest” and return to “closest and most convenient.” The City Creek Center is located just a few blocks from the Gateway Mall. Unless the City Creek Center brings something new to the table, Weller worries about an oversaturated retail area in downtown.

“If they just provide the same stores that already exist in suburban malls -nobody is going to drive to downtown to go to an Old Navy they can go to near their neighborhood,” said Tony Weller manager of Sam Weller Bookstore. Since 1929 Sam Weller Bookstore has provided Salt Lakers with unique rare literature. As a child, Tony crawled the floors of the bookstore owned by his father, Sam Weller. When his father began losing his sight, Tony took over the family business.

“In the case of City Creek, they’ve already got a neighborhood that can’t be beat,” Weller said. “They are in the oldest part of the city, the temple nearby, the convention center, all the hotels, the wonderful city library. There are a lot of stable amenities in this neighborhood.”

Sam Weller bookstore

Weller says the bookstore is suffering severely due to the loss of walking traffic. Weller has cut his staff by one-third since last year. He is hopeful about the City Creek project, but he fears that local merchants maybe left in the dark more now than they have been before.

“We’re all healthier when businesses are owned by local citizens. The national corporations will ship a large portion of the earnings out of state,” Weller said. “I’ve seen idiot officials bending backwards to get a Wal-mart or a Nordstrom in their area -don’t get me wrong, I love Nordstrom, but I no longer believe that local merchants should receive equal treatment, I believe local people should receive superior treatment.”

Weller says local merchants should be treated like local college students. Utahans who attend the University of Arizona have to pay out of state tuition because their Utah tax dollars did not help Arizona schools. But if a Utah student attends the University of Utah, their tuition is much less than the tuition than the non-Utah resident students.

“Even the greediest local merchant is more beneficial to the community than the corporate colonist,” Weller said.

Weller says that neither the city or City Creek developers have been very open with merchants about what type of stores will be in the new mall. But he is still optimistic about the plans. “I think the change will be dramatic enough and nice enough that it will cause a large amount of the local population to return to the area,” Weller said.

Utah Woolen Mills, Bennion Jewelers and Sam Weller Bookstore have proven to be strong staples on Main Street and the downtown area. They have been apart of Utah’s economy for decades, they have seen the hardships of development and they are all optimistic for the future. Each merchant was interviewed separately, but there was a common phrase each of them repeated: “we’ve just got to ride it out.”

Story Update

Sam Weller’s Books announced last Friday that they will close their 40,000 square foot store on Main Street and move to a smaller location. Since 1961 Weller’s has been a downtown institution, but due the both the economic decline and the loss of pedestrian traffic on Main Street, Weller’s business has been in decline. Tony Weller remains optimistic that Sam Weller’s Books will find a new home in downtown Salt Lake City and continue to provide residents with a large selection of new, used and rare books.

Weller owns and operates out of half of the David Keith building built in 1902, Keys on Main and City Weekly operate out of the second half of the building owned by Dahle’s Management Corp. Weller says that he intends to sell his portion of the building. There is no word yet on an asking price or if the historic building will be preserved.

See Weller’s press release

See the original Utah Stories eight-part series telling the history of downtown Salt Lake City from the merchants on Main Street

Read Utah Stories latest story from April 2012, on the City Creek Development, regarding its opening and the five years that have past since the beginning of our coverage.