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Salt Lake City mayoral candidates clash over how to cultivate tech industry

FILES - Crowds move through the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.
FILES - Crowds move through the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With two weeks to go until the primary election, six of the candidates running for Salt Lake City mayor faced a different crowd Tuesday during a forum hosted by Silicon Slopes: the tech community.

Although Tuesday's event wasn't formatted as a debate, candidates clashed over why tech firms are eyeing areas like Lehi and whether Utah's capital should provide incentives to lure tech companies in with higher-paying jobs.

The forum became testy at times when some candidates scuffled over the past relationship between the mayor and City Council and whether those public fights have tarnished Salt Lake's appeal to tech giants.

Only six out of eight candidates participated in the forum. The other two candidates, Rainer Huck and Richard Goldberger, weren't invited because they aren't considered "front-runners" in the race, Blake McClary, who is the chairman of the Salt Lake City chapter of Silicon Slopes, told the Deseret News.

City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall launched her campaign with an emphasis on the tech world, promising that as mayor she'd push for Salt Lake City to step into the tech industry she says has "slipped" through the city's fingers when it landed in Lehi and the Point of the Mountain area.

Asked about the "tenuous" relationship the mayor and the council have had, Mendenhall said "some degree of tension is natural" between the city's branches of government, but she pledged a better relationship between city leaders to make the city appear to be less of a minefield for companies looking to invest big money in infrastructure.

"We have lobbed grenades as a city at (companies) who have come here to our doorstep, and that's why I'm running," Mendenhall said. "I know exactly what you're talking about. I know what we looked like. And I've watched us lose opportunities because of it."

David Garbett, former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition and an environmental attorney, then took a shot at Mendenhall, asking her that if she knew the relationship between the council and the mayor was "bad," then why didn't she jump into the race until after Mayor Jackie Biskupski bowed out — a move he chalked up to "calculated risk."

Mendenhall brushed off Garbett's jab, saying several factors, including timing of her master's degree and her family, influenced her decision to run, and she said Garbett asked her to run before he launched his own campaign.

The forum's moderator, McClary, then shut down the back-and-forth, intent on keeping the discussion focused on the tech industry.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, asked what leaders could do to make the city a better place for tech companies, said along with addressing air quality and sustainability issues and bringing in tech "experts" to develop a strategy, she'd work to better relationships on both the city and state level to draw companies in.

"If they see on the front page of newspapers people are fighting, (companies) are like, 'Are we going to have an issue putting $100 million into Utah if you guys can't get your act together?'" Escamilla said.

Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis said Salt Lake City leaders "created a catastrophe economically" when they "walked away" from Adobe, which was asking for a $34 million incentive.

"That was their entire incentive, and the city walked away from the table," Dabakis said. "The whole world would have been different had we not done that. That's what happens when people who don't have a business vision in the city."

Dabakis said he has that vision, drawn from business skills he's fostered ever since he began Russian business endeavors back in the 1990s. He said issues like homelessness and affordable housing "depend critically on jobs and giving people the dignity and respect that comes from good jobs."

"That comes from someone who has a soul of an entrepreneur," Dabakis said.

Asked why Salt Lake City isn't the tech hub of Utah and why it's located in Lehi instead, Garbett said a big reason is parking, which is more abundant on the south end of the valley.

"We do need to rival Lehi," Garbett said, noting parking is not Salt Lake City's "strength" but he indicated there could be some opportunity along I-80 and near the airport to attract tech companies to the west side.

But Garbett said he's against tax incentives for big-name companies. Instead, officials should address issues like homelessness and transportation first to make Salt Lake City more attractive to the tech industry.

"The city can set the table by being a place that is attractive and sells itself," Garbett said. "To me, that's the most important."

Former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold said the issue goes "beyond" incentives. He said he was "bothered" that the conversation was centering around the assumption that "Lehi is our competition."

"What's happened in Lehi has happened in Lehi," Penfold said. "But the thing that we're learning now is that there's no way ... Lehi can build their way out of their congestion nightmare that is the result of the way they developed down there. Nobody wants to commute down there."

Instead, Penfold said Salt Lake Lake City "brings to the table something beyond incentives for locations of business here; we bring quality of life."

"Our conversation needs to be about how do we incentivize all those things in the city that make life better," Penfold said. "How do we ensure we have housing availability for people who want to work here?"

Businessman David Ibarra said Salt Lake City has to have "imagination" and be creative to attract businesses in to make Salt Lake City a "smart city." He said he could use his business experience to do that — starting with inviting in "young tech companies." He said he would use city funds to help startup companies.

"We've got to help with the capital piece," Ibarra said. "The talent is already there if somebody's creating. We've got to be a magnet and invite it in and help put the space and the seed money to start. And we can do that."