SALT LAKE CITY — As the news reverberated across Utah that major renovations will begin on the Salt Lake Temple and Temple Square at the end of this year, state and city leaders reacted with excitement — hopeful it won't negatively impact tourism or business in the heart of the capital city.
Calling The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Temple Square the state's "No. 1 tourist attraction," Gov. Gary Herbert said he expects "natural curiosity" will bring church members, visitors and tourists alike to downtown.
"So I'm hopeful that tourism doesn't wane at all," the governor told reporters after Friday's announcement.
"It will maybe increase, in fact, as people come here and see our beautiful capital city and our wonderful state and — most importantly — our wonderful people that reside here," he said.
The Salt Lake Temple draws more than 3 million to 5 million visitors each year.
Herbert joined church leaders and other elected officials for the announcement inside the South Visitors' Center on Temple Square, welcoming the renovations of the church's "keystone temple" as an "exciting event."
"It's going to be a very positive event in our state, certainly for members of the church, for nonmembers, for tourism, travel," Herbert said. "The state will benefit significantly."
The Salt Lake Temple, which was completed in 1893, underwent a major renovation in the 1960s. Church President Russell M. Nelson announced Friday the temple will close Dec. 29 and remain closed for more than four years, until 2024.
"I think it will be an exciting four years," Herbert said.
Flurry of construction
The renovation project will bring dust, noise, cranes and road closures to downtown Salt Lake City at a time when other major projects are also slated for construction, including a slew of skyscrapers expected to drastically alter the city's skyline.
"The logistical aspects of this certainly are going to have some impact," Herbert said. "We're going to have some congestion and traffic and closing off of streets as we have construction work take place here on Temple Square, so that will be a little bit of a frustration I'm sure for people trying to get around.
"But on the other hand, it shows the vitality of Salt Lake City," the governor added. "We're not closing things down. We're expanding and growing. We're re-modernizing."
Brent Roberts, director of special projects for the church, said it will indeed be a "major construction project," so Utahns should expect scaffolding on the exterior of the temple, as well as "multiple tower cranes." He said church officials and construction crews will "work within the guidelines" of city noise ordinances "unless we receive a special exception for things that would be better for vehicle traffic."
"We will work with them with flaggers and vehicle and pedestrian traffic on any closures of North and South Temple," he said, adding that dust will be "mitigated every day" with water, "so we'll try to keep that down."
Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke, who also attended Friday's announcement, said it will be a "massive construction project" — likely similar to what Salt Lake residents endured during the multiyear construction of City Creek Center.
"The good thing is, I think folks who live and work in Salt Lake City are used to having major construction projects," he said.
"But this one is going to be significant, not just in size and scope, but because of other projects going on in downtown as well," Luke said, pointing to several skyscraper projects slated to begin starting as soon as later this year. Addressing concerns around traffic, dust and noise will be "paramount," he added, "but we've worked with the church and other developers successfully" in the past.
"There will be a lot of congestion, but we've dealt with those challenges before and we'll continue to manage them," Luke said.
Another concern, however, could potentially surface later on.
Controversy arose in the late 1990s when the church sought to harvest granite from the original quarry in Little Cottonwood Canyon from the same slab of stone that was used to build the Salt Lake Temple more than a century ago.
Asked Friday whether church officials will take more granite from that quarry for this renovation project, Roberts said, "That has not yet been fully determined."
Luke said city leaders will be following that question "closely" as the project evolves because of the city's interest in protecting the canyon's watershed.
More than 20 years ago, opponents of the church harvesting granite from that quarry worried it would destabilize the mountainside and cause long-term esthetic damage to the area.
'Heart of Utah'
Herbert said the temple renovation speaks to "the heart of Utah" in that it represents the "growth that's taking place, the economic opportunity, the great quality of life" as a place for religious people "not just from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," but also people from other religions.
When the renovation is complete and the church hosts the first open house of the Salt Lake Temple since its original dedication in 1893, church leaders expect to see "people from all over the world" come to the temple, said Elder Jack N. Gerard, executive director of the church's public affairs department.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski left the announcement early to attend another press event, but the mayor told the Deseret News she thinks the renovations will have some impact on tourism, though she expressed excitement for the final product.
"It's a four-year project, and Temple Square is one of the biggest attractions in the whole state of Utah, so we'll see some impact, but they are keeping it open and available for tourism," Biskupski said. "It's a massive project, much bigger than I even expected, and very significant investment is going into this development."
The mayor said "one of the beauties" of the renovation is the wall surrounding Temple Square is "coming down." She believes that will be a "remarkable change" and allow visitors to have a better street view of the grounds.
"The dynamic of that just makes it much more inviting," Biskupski said. "I'm excited about the project. I'm glad my team is partnering with them and working so well together to get this launched by the end of the year. And then we'll see what happens."
Luke said he, too, is excited about the renovation, and "probably the biggest difference that really jumped out" at him is that the "fortress feel" currently surrounding Temple Square will come down.
"It's going to have a much more open feel than it does now," the councilman said.
What will remain open?
Church leaders said as the renovations take place, certain areas of Temple Square will continue to be accessible, including the North Visitors' Center, the Tabernacle, and the Assembly Hall on the west side.
Temple Square will also continue to host Christmas lights during the holidays, though they may be "somewhat reduced" due to construction areas, said the Temple Department's executive director, Elder Larry Y. Wilson.
"Of course there will be some impact because of the affected area, but those not affected will continue to be available for the normal activities there," Elder Wilson said. "We're also looking at other ways to be able to accommodate visitors to Temple Square during this time and expect to share more information about that as it becomes available."
Church leaders are also working to make part of the Conference Center available during the construction period, said Elder Gerard. He noted that if visitors go to the upper levels of the Conference Center, it will "give unobstructed views of the work that will be in process."
"So, actually we think visitors coming to Temple Square during the project will have better views than they have today of the work that will be underway," he said.
Jay Kinghorn, associate managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said his office views the Salt Lake Temple as a top tourist destination of Utah, much like what the Vatican is to Rome.
As construction progresses over the next four years, Kinghorn said his office isn't expecting a drop in visitation — though there will inevitably be some "minor disruption due to the construction process."
"But we have a lot of confidence in Temple Square Hospitality in being able to mitigate those and maintain a high visitor experience," Kinghorn said.
He also credited church leaders for having a "long-term vision" for the future of Temple Square so it will drive even more visitors when it's completed in 2024.
"We appreciate the thought and care that has gone into addressing the visitor experience while construction is underway," Kinghorn said.
Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, welcomed Friday's announcement, calling Temple Square "undoubtedly one of the most visited attractions in Utah." He said the renovations will make it "even more welcoming to visitors."
Brewer acknowledged there will be day-to-day impacts during construction, but overall he doesn't expect any major "disruptions" to City Creek Center or other nearby businesses.
"I think the biggest concern would probably be North Temple, which is a major thoroughfare in and out of Salt Lake," Brewer said. "But I think commuters have demonstrated themselves resilient and can find alternatives to get into town."
Contributing: Lauren Bennett