SALT LAKE CITY — With a growing downtown, relatively low cost of living, and abundance of young professionals with tech degrees, is Salt Lake City poised to become the next big tech hub?
The city’s downtown has seen dramatic changes over the past several decades, and more changes are coming with several new skyscrapers on the way.
But other shifts underway in Utah’s capital city, highlighted by speakers at the Downtown Alliance’s annual State of Downtown event Wednesday, may be less obvious to the naked eye.
“Our rising skyline is just one measure of our growing city,” said Matt Baldwin, the 2019 chairman of the Downtown Alliance Board.
Salt Lake residents have more tech degrees per capita than a number of other major cities, including Boston, Denver and San Francisco, according to research presented at Wednesday’s event. That talent pool, combined with the region’s relative affordability, makes Salt Lake City an attractive option for companies looking to relocate from cities like Seattle, said Matt Vance, senior research director and economist with real estate firm CBRE.
There are now 95 tech companies that call downtown Salt Lake City home, according to Downtown Alliance.
“There’s a heavy concentration of tech talent here,” Vance said. “The evidence is there that these (companies) have taken notice and brought the jobs.”
A report released in March by national real estate service provider Cushman and Wakefield found that the technology and innovation sector was the No. 1 driver of commercial real estate leasing in the Salt Lake area — and that the Salt Lake metropolitan area was second only to Silicon Valley in the percentage of commercial leases signed by tech companies in 2018.
The relatively low cost of living in Salt Lake City is appealing to companies based in more expensive areas, Vance said. Average salaries for tech jobs are about 5.5% lower in Salt Lake City than the national average, according to the research Vance presented, while salaries for such jobs in Seattle are about 15.8% higher than the national average.
Utah’s capital city is also a national leader when it comes to coworking, with one of the greatest amounts of flexible coworking space per capita. One local coworking site, The Wave, hosted Wednesday’s event.
Places like The Wave provide a workspace — which typically includes desks, meeting rooms and other amenities — for people who are self-employed, traveling or without an office.
“Coworking is kind of a force to be reckoned with in the office sector right now,” Vance said. “Salt Lake has really adopted this thing.”
Salt Lake City’s population of 25- to 44-year-olds has grown about 19% since 2010, at a similar rate to Boise and at a higher rate than cities including Denver and Seattle. To keep attracting and retaining young professionals, Vance said, it’s “imperative” that Salt Lake City continue to “offer residents what they’re looking for: an 18-hour city with all the amenities they’re looking for.”
Three businesses and organizations were recognized with Downtown Achievement Awards on Wednesday for their investment in downtown Salt Lake City: restaurant Tin Angel, the Excellence in the Community concert series, and Artspace, which incorporates housing with art studios and galleries, nonprofit offices, and small retail shops in its mixed-use projects.
Baldwin noted the growing number of restaurants and “legitimate nightlife district emerging” downtown, “chipping away at the outdated notion that there is nothing to do in Salt Lake City.”
More than 3,500 apartment units have popped up downtown since 2000 — nearly an 80% increase — giving urban residents easy access to that nightlife.
Residents can expect to see plenty of orange cones and construction workers downtown next year, Downtown Alliance leaders said, due to projects on West Temple, North Temple, 300 West and State Street.
“2020 is shaping up to be the year of the construction crane,” Baldwin said.
As Salt Lake City’s skyline rises and the number of people downtown increases, Brewer said, the Downtown Alliance is making safety a priority. The Downtown Ambassador Program, introduced in 2018, stationed license social service workers on city streets to both greet and assist visitors and to help people who are in crisis or experiencing homelessness.
So far in 2019, the ambassadors have performed 1,067 wellness checks, assisted 2,260 visitors, referred 926 people to services, and responded to 733 instances of aggressive panhandling, according to statistics presented at Wednesday’s event.
The organization is also prioritizing safety in transportation, Brewer said. That means looking into new solutions for challenges related to driving, parking, public transportation and biking downtown.
“Let’s plan for density,” Brewer said. “It’s coming.”