When droves of people who've never been to Utah come to the Olympics next month, they'll be looking for a particular cultural experience. They will not, says Tony Weller, be eager to find the same old chain stores.
Weller admits his bias: As owner of the 71-year-old Sam Weller's Bookstore on Main Street, he's a holdout, a survivor who believes his allure lies not in discounted merchandise or in miles of aisles. Success, financial and otherwise, comes in a carefully cultivated connection with the community.
Weller has an ardent ally in Mayor Rocky Anderson, who lumps chain bookstores and chain anything together as "boring." The mayor urges everybody, resident or visitor, to spend money in homegrown stores and restaurants, such as Sam Weller's and the Orbit Cafe, and promises them "a memorable experience."
But what has the mayor done besides talk? Weller and Steven Rosenberg, owner of the Liberty Heights Fresh gourmet grocery, say Anderson's intentions are good, but they've yet to bear fruit.
"Rocky's heart is in the right place," said Rosenberg, who is co-chairman of the local business advocacy group, the Vest Pocket Coalition. "He has a tremendous understanding of social and civil rights issues. He's very passionate. But he doesn't have a business background."
Now the Olympics are on the city's doorstep, and Rosenberg says he understands that the mayor's attentions must be trained on them.
But "what's the long-range plan?" Rosenberg asked. "There is no plan."
Weller has one, though he admits it's probably too radical for Salt Lake City.
"In Boulder, Colo., in certain California communities, and in Ithaca, N.Y., they have created ordinances that limit or prohibit cookie-cutter establishments," Weller said. So chain stores have a tougher time taking over. In Salt Lake City and other locales around the country, national corporations have been welcomed in, only to abandon the city when they ran into financial trouble.
"If you look at troubled communities, the first ones to close are the chains," Weller said. "They don't try as hard." Too often, the big players were in business just long enough to drain shoppers away from the locally owned stores and restaurants.
In the Salt Lake Valley, Weller warns, "there are too many malls. Retail is grossly oversaturated," so every merchant faces a lean, if not lethal, climate in 2002. "We're doing OK," he said of his own shop. "But we're not thriving."
The number of new businesses joining the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce was down in 2001, said Chamber President Larry Mankin. "Since Sept. 11, we've seen a pretty dramatic drop of the small companies of 30 employees and less." The reasons: "One, business is down, and two, they're scared of the future." Mankin added that in September and October, "we took a paddling," but now Chamber membership is starting to recover. "We saw a huge turnaround in December . . . so people are fearful, but now they're saying, 'Well, maybe . . . .' "
Mankin praises the mayor for his enthusiasm about locally owned businesses but adds that he's still waiting to see what tangible changes follow the Olympics.
Again, Weller touts the locals.
"Having all these international visitors in the city, going out of their way to see unique local businesses, I hope it will remind those who have a say in how the city develops . . . that tourists don't go out of their way to see McDonald's or PayLess Shoes. The more local establishments we have, the more attractive Salt Lake City is," Weller said.
He recently visited family in Las Cruces, N.M. "I thought, this is right on the border, so it's going to be a rich cultural experience." But what he found bore a disappointing resemblance to too many other shopping districts across the nation. Chain restaurants, chain clothing stores.
Rosenberg agreed with Weller about a valleywide glut of malls, saying that the mayor's opposition to the Grand Salt Lake Mall, a development proposed for 5600 West at I-80, was wise and prescient. "It would have been a horrible mistake. With the economy the way it's going, it would have been boarded up," had it been completed at all.
But when Anderson denounced the Grand Mall proposal in the summer of 2000, the City Council took its time before voting it down, and did so only after west-side residents and state legislators had fought over it for weeks. Rosenberg and Weller acknowledge that the mayor can't have his own way with everything, immediately, every time.
"Whatever hasn't happened" to help local businesses "is more the result of bureaucracy than a lack of desire on (Anderson's) part," Weller said. The mayor also speaks often about the need for affordable housing in his city — and Weller wholeheartedly agrees, pointing out that if his 35 employees can't find decent places to live, they won't stay in Salt Lake City and he'll have a tough time keeping his store staffed.
"The spirit of the city has changed" since Anderson took office, Weller said. "I'm still waiting to see the programmatic changes."
Rosenberg also remains optimistic. "The mayor's a good guy. I'd like to see him get beyond the Olympics and pull a rabbit out of his hat."