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Small merchants, restaurants not seeing benefits of City Creek

Published April 20, 2012 5:01 pm

Massive downtown development has yet to provide much-needed boost.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tom Grant was so sure City Creek Center would benefit his small restaurant on 100 South that he hired several more employees to deal with the expected crowds.

But the swarms of diners at Martine Cafe lasted only through the mall's grand opening weekend, March 22-24. Weeks later, Grant, who also is the restaurant's executive chef, wonders whether being across the street from the massive development will be any benefit at all.

"There aren't a lot of restaurants in City Creek. You would think that people might leave the mall to get something to eat, but that just hasn't happened," he said.

At least so far.

Martine is among a number of downtown businesses that hoped City Creek Center would help their enterprises and instead have found that traffic and sales are much the same as they were before the huge mall opened.

Their enthusiasm stemmed from the huge investment plowed into the development to make it a place where people from along the Wasatch Front and beyond would come to shop and stay a while.

City Creek Center, owned by mall operator Taubman Centers Inc. in partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, features more than 80 retailers, several restaurants and quick-serve eateries and a food court in 700,000 square feet of space.

On the plus side for surrounding merchants, the mall's restaurant and retail lineup doesn't seem to directly compete with the enterprises that surround it; nor does it seem to be drawing business away from them.

However, most agree it has yet to bring more people downtown who are willing to walk any farther than to their cars. The way the massive center was built, shoppers can park in the cavernous parking garage, hop an escalator up to the mall and walk from State Street west to West Temple without setting foot outside the development because there's a much-debated pedestrian bridge over Main Street.

City Creek Center "definitely isn't a negative in any way," said Main Street barber shop owner Ray Francom. "But so far, I just don't see shoppers at City Creek venturing out onto Main Street much."

Francom and others are seeing plenty of people who work at financial services giant Goldman Sachs, which has settled into — and begun an aggressive expansion — at 222 S. Main St.

Goldman's highly paid workforce in the city is expected to grow to 1,600 by the end of the year. Its Salt Lake City office is its second largest in the U.S. and its fifth largest globally. By the end of the year, it could be the fourth largest.

Francom said that over time, it will be office workers employed by companies such as Goldman Sachs and those who live in the downtown area who will have the greatest impact on businesses such as his. Downtown-area workers and residents, he said, are more likely to hit the streets and explore than those who drive to City Creek Center from the suburbs, he believes.

In addition to office buildings, the LDS Church built three condominium projects totaling 425 units and a 110-unit apartment complex in City Creek. More condos likely will be built as market conditions improve.

Eventually, thousands may live in condos and apartments in City Creek. Today, however, the numbers are in the hundreds.

The potential of the entire City Creek project — the mall, the condos and apartments and offices — was one of several reasons Francom opened a second Ray's Barber Shop location on Main Street.

Francom said that so far, few of his customers are people who stop in after having come downtown to check out the new mall.

Francis Liong, owner of Lamb's Grill restaurant, has noticed the same phenomenon.

"It seems like everyone is gravitating for City Creek —and staying there," said Liong, who purchased the restaurant seven months ago. On a recent weekday, when his restaurant was slow around lunchtime, he walked over to City Creek Center, where he found himself standing in front of a busy The Cheesecake Factory. "The restaurant was full and there was a line of people waiting to go in," he said. "It was disheartening."

Pam O'Mara says she, too, feels a little left out.

O'Mara owns Utah Artist Hands, an art gallery, and The Artful Cup coffee shop on 100 South across from the west side of the mall. "The first weekend [for City Creek] was crazy everywhere in the city — it was like the Olympics," she said. "People were out on the street, it was really busy."

But it hasn't been that way since, which has led O'Mara and other merchants to wonder whether even their good fortune on City Creek's grand opening weekend had more to do with the massive convention staged downtown by Adobe Systems than City Creek Center. About 4,000 people attended the conference at the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center March 21-23.

O'Mara remains hopeful that over the long term, shoppers who come to City Creek Center will explore the rest of Main Street. "I'm optimistic that once people see the mall, they'll explore the rest of downtown and discover all the locally owned stores and restaurants. I'm hoping that will happen because it's been quiet for such a long time down here."

Downtown merchants and restaurants have suffered through light-rail construction in the late 1990s and City Creek Center construction in the past several years, both of which had undoubtedly kept people away.

O'Mara said the years it took to build City Creek Center — and the overall City Creek project — were difficult. Many people stayed away as blocks of downtown were torn up, buildings were demolished and the area was redeveloped. There's still a perception that parking is an issue, she says.

Linda Wardell, general manager of City Creek Center, said City Creek Center's huge parking garage with multiple access points makes parking downtown easy — whether you're headed to her mall or other downtown businesses.

"Park here and enjoy the whole downtown experience," she said.

The first hour of parking at City Creek Center is free; park for two hours or less, and you'll pay $1; three hours or less is $2; four hours or less is $5 and five hours or less is $8.

"As locals start venturing back downtown, they'll realize it isn't just a big construction zone and will see all that the city has to offer," said Fred Moesinger of Caffe Molise, who said he's seen more traffic on the weekends since City Creek opened, but no difference on weekdays. "There is a lot of energy and excitement around the opening of the City Creek. It'll take a little more time to build, but it is going to be great for downtown."

In the months leading up to City Creek's opening, a dozen new small retailers and restaurants had opened along Main Street with the same hope; even Starbucks is moving from the Marriott City Center on State Street to be closer to City Creek. (The mall itself has no Starbucks.)

Whether City Creek Center will be a benefit remains to be seen, said Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, an advocacy group for downtown. He's not surprised that many people visiting City Creek Center for the first time aren't venturing beyond its walls given everything there is to see in the huge project. He's confident that on subsequent visits, when the newness has worn off, people will be more likely to explore the rest of downtown.

While most downtown merchants say the hoped-for benefits of City Creek Center have yet to materialize, at least the project isn't hurting their enterprises.

At Martine, Grant says City Creek Center's comparatively limited eating options help soften any negative effects a massive mall with new restaurants could have on his eatery.

In terms of restaurants, only The Cheesecake Factory and Texas de Brazil Churrascaria are open on Sundays, while everything else in the shopping center is closed.

Those also are the only two eateries that serve alcohol. In fact it is written into Nordstrom's lease that the Sixth and Pine restaurant on the second floor of its new City Creek Store is alcohol-free, a nod to Taubman's partner — the LDS Church, whose members eschew alcohol.

"We've had some Nordstrom shoppers come over here for a drink and some tapas," Grant said. And some in search of a Sunday meal have opted for his restaurant over the two City Creek Center choices.

But even those scenarios don't happen with enough frequency to make much of a difference over sales levels before City Creek's debut.

"We thought it would be a lot more vibrant down here after it opened," Grant said. "It's disappointing."

Greg Nielsen, office manager with Naked Fish Bistro on 100 South, said he doesn't understand all the fuss over The Cheescake Factory. But he says he understands it's not as if those who visit City Creek snub his restaurant on purpose. "I don't know if people visiting City Creek even know we're here," he said.

Lesley Mitchell writes One Cheap Chick in daily blog form at blogs.sltrib.com/cheap. lesley@sltrib.com Twitter: @cheapchick Facebook.com/OneCheapChick