First leader of Salt Lake City’s new Department of Economic Development leaves for Virginia

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City's first ever economic development director Lara Fritts is departing after three years. Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

As the first head of Salt Lake City’s newly created Department of Economic Development packed for a move to Virginia last week and bade farewell to co-workers, she said she loved the job here.

Lara Fritts spent the past three years promoting Utah’s capital as an attractive place for commerce — and departs for a similar but more influential position in Richmond with several accomplishments in the rearview mirror.

When Mayor Jackie Biskupski hired her in 2016, Salt Lake City was already riding a wave of economic prosperity, with low unemployment and something of a construction boom underway. In an interview on one of her last days at City Hall, Fritts, 48, said she was “honored” to have a hand in guiding and shaping some of that growth.

She said she is proudest of helping to direct more than $40 million in incentives for nearly 2,500 new units of affordable housing. Fritts also pointed to shoring up budgets to keep the Twilight Concert series afloat, and welcoming expansions by some big employers such as Amazon, Post Brands, UPS and Stadler Rail.

By the numbers, the city saw nearly $1 billion in new investment in those three years, attracted nearly 9,155 new jobs and saw average household incomes rise.

Fritts weathered some stressful days, too, especially when her two bosses — Biskupski and the Salt Lake City Council — clashed publicly over how to handle the inland port, carved out of the city’s northwest side by the Utah Legislature to develop a shipping and logistics hub.

Pioneering post

Biskupski elevated economic development to a full city department shortly after she was elected in 2016. She hired Fritts from a pool of 150 applicants, based largely on her breadth of experience in similar posts in Maryland, Wisconsin and Virginia.

Staffing in the city’s Department of Economic Development is now at about 36 people, after some new hires in business development. Fritts also helped hire Danny Walz as chief operating officer for the city’s Redevelopment Agency and Felicia Baca as the new Arts Division director.

The mayor, who is not seeking re-election, said she remains convinced that giving economic development a Cabinet-level profile was a good move and has benefited residents and businesses.

She described Fritts as “visionary,” “energetic” and someone who understands how business, redevelopment and arts and culture fit together in boosting economic activity. The mayor said Fritts also promoted wage equity and sustainability as she courted new businesses.

Numbers indicate the city’s tax base continued a trend of shifting steadily toward business and away from homeowners in the past three years, as commerce grew. Of Salt Lake City’s total taxable value of $23.4 billion in 2018, 56.1% was nonresidential, up from 55.1% in 2016 and 51.4% in 2013, according to city data.

“Lara and her team really have knocked it out of the park,” Biskupski said. “There just isn't any other way to say it.”

City Council Chairman Charlie Luke echoed those views. Lifting economic development from where it was before — a subset of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhood — “needed to happen for years,” Luke said.

“To me," Luke said, “Lara’s legacy will be the successful creation of that department.”

Fritts is leaving to become president and CEO of Greater Richmond Partnership, an economic-development agency serving Virginia’s capital and the surrounding counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico.

She called the regional opportunity too good to pass up, though she said she leaves Utah “with a heavy heart.” In fact, Fritts said she shed tears repeatedly while saying goodbyes. Her staff even held a Kleenex party at one point as part of a series of send-offs.

When Fritts announced her departure in June, Biskupski said she would name an interim department director by now — but she hasn’t. The mayor said last week the job search has been complicated by the fact she is leaving office when her term ends in early 2020.

“There’s some risk in that for somebody, but we have a lot of people who have applied,” Biskupski said. “And I’ll do some interviewing and we’ll see.”

Port of call

Fritts was also the city’s first representative on the Inland Port Authority Board, created to govern development of a global trade and logistics hub on nearly 16,000 undeveloped acres in Salt Lake City, near the eastern fringe of the Great Salt Lake.

The city’s elected leaders opposed the port’s creation, and Biskupski has since sued the state, alleging the move usurped city taxing and zoning authority in violation of the Utah Constitution.

That left Fritts often caught in crossfire, both in openly contentious inland port meetings and when the mayor and the City Council differed on whether to flatly oppose port negotiations or reluctantly engage with state lawmakers.

Fritts called how the port was created “unfortunate,” adding that the mayor and the council have both been very gracious in helping me navigate their different perspectives."

I am hoping the litigation will give us the answers we all seek,” she said diplomatically.

Luke said the circumstances around the port were “tough” for Fritts. "She did the best she could with the leeway she was given,” he said.

Fritts was one of two women on the 13-member authority board and at times flagged what she viewed as a lack of transparency in board dealings, particularly when its members closed subcommittee meetings to the public.

Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, who also serves on the port board, said Biskupski’s stance of barring city staffers from cooperating with board officials tied Fritts’ hands. “I felt so bad for her,” Rogers said.

“Even so, [Fritts] was a great, quiet partner to me. She made the best of a lose-lose situation,” said Rogers, who added that he was “extremely disheartened” Fritts was leaving.

From Biskupski’s perspective, it was the council that created those difficulties with regard to the inland port.

“Because we were not a united front, it did create uncomfortable circumstances for our staff and for Laura in particular," the mayor said. But morally and ethically, they were always right there with me.”