Once again, Salt Lake City has been called dullsville, more or less. Only this time, the criticism has some merit. The larger lessons from it, however, may have gotten lost.

Last week, a Canadian-based consulting group issued a report that said downtown Salt Lake City just isn't what it should be. No surprise there. But while reporters dutifully and accurately provided the details of what the experts said, few people seemed to understand what the report meant for Mayor Rocky Anderson's vision of a Main Street-only downtown. Quite frankly, it obliterated it.Since he first campaigned for office, Anderson has faithfully held the view that Main Street and its smaller, locally owned businesses must be protected and enhanced at all costs, to the point where he forced the Gateway Project, located just to the west of the old Union Pacific Depot, to scale back its plans for retail space. Any success out there would suck business away from Main Street, he said. Only a few weeks ago, he told the Deseret News editorial board the city can't handle any more large retail space. He said it already has more of it than a place its size typically would support. A large and prosperous Gateway project would do nothing but hurt Main Street, further eroding an already dull downtown.

Here's what the folks from Thomas Consultants of Vancouver said: At the moment, only 110,000 square feet of retail space is occupied downtown, excluding the two malls. The city easily could support three times as much on or around Main Street. That's based in part on the fact that the city attracts a lot of visitors each year -- 4 million to Temple Square and about 155,000 as delegates to conventions at the Salt Palace. These are people with money, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Here's another bit of news to add to what the experts said: Main Street alone isn't about to provide another 220,000 square feet of retail. In fact, most of it is controlled by owners who seem to have no inclination to build more retail -- at least not the kind envisioned by the consultants.

In any event, the type of downtown that is lively, unique and attractive typically includes several blocks. The bottom line: Main Street needs a large, robust and thriving Gateway as much as Gateway needs a robust and thriving Main Street. There is room enough for both. Not only that, the city must have both if it is to compete with its true threat -- the suburbs.

Have you been to Sandy lately? The city is building a nice little downtown, complete with a mall, an impressive convention center and a restaurant where diners can watch real-life cliff divers. Have you been to West Valley City? That city has grouped its mall with a hockey arena and a large live-theater complex. Dullsville has plenty of competition without having to fight itself.

Which brings me to a larger issue that wasn't entirely spelled out by the consultants' report. City government is limited in what it can do to improve things. It can build sidewalks, parks and other attractions. The rest is up to other people. Government can't force people to invest.

The study described, accurately, a downtown dominated by banks and office buildings -- a solid, permanent-looking and, yes, dull place. But look closely at the changes it recommended.

First, the consultants said, the city needs more ground floor space open to retail. A city ordinance already requires new construction to provide retail on its ground floors. Check. Next, they said the city needs to allow outdoor restaurant seating. That already has been done. Check. They suggested sidewalk vending carts. Check.

The list goes on. With a few minor exceptions, the city has done all it can to make downtown thrive. In addition, various public and private entities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few years on downtown amenities, including light-rail tracks down Main Street, the construction of several new hotels and the LDS Church's new Conference Center. Simply put, if dullsville is to come alive, the private sector must do it. But that means the city should be doing all it can to encourage businesses of all kinds. It means the mayor was wrong when he squeezed the Gateway project and canceled plans to build park lots to the south of it and to bury high-voltage power lines.

Economic isolationism doesn't work locally any better than it does globally. People are flocking to the United States right now because it offers things they can't get elsewhere -- freedom, cheap education and a booming economy filled with opportunities. People along the Wasatch Front will flock downtown when it offers them things they can't get in the suburbs -- specialty shops, restaurants, museums and other cultural attractions.

Those things will come so long as the city doesn't get in the way.

Editorial page editor Jay Evensen may be reached by e-mail at even@desnews.com