Downtown Salt Lake City is increasingly a hub for young, tech-savvy workers who live and play among the skyscrapers

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City skyline on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.

Salt Lake City’s downtown is thriving — and changing. Young, educated and tech-smart workers are moving into condos and apartments close to their jobs and a host of new restaurants, bars and theaters across the business core.

A new study, commissioned by the Downtown Alliance, representing merchants in the heart of Salt Lake City, has documented that growth in the working-age population, comparing it to other large cities in the West. Its key finding: Utah’s downtown workforce is more tech based but also on the lower end of the national salary scale for that sector.

The availability of highly skilled workers is a leading factor — more important than office rents or other metrics — for companies deciding to locate in Salt Lake City, said Matthew Vance, senior research director and economist for CBRE, who led the research.

“Talent is king," Vance said. “It’s in charge.”

And as Salt Lake City’s downtown continues to flourish along with Utah’s overall economy, that talent pool is giving it a competitive edge among major cities such as Denver, Portland, Seattle, Boise, Omaha and Austin. It is also pushing related growth in markets for office space, residential units, hospitality and retail outlets.

“Job growth is the driving force for all things real estate,” Vance said.

Matt Baldwin, board chairman for the Downtown Alliance, said “the future for Salt Lake City’s downtown has never been brighter. The economy is growing and the skyline is rising.”

Others highlighted challenges from that growth, including a continuing need for more affordable housing construction and the prospect of traffic congestion.

Baldwin noted that five major high-rise projects would get underway in 2020, adding nearly 100 stories to the skyline between them, along with 2 million square feet of new office space and hundreds of apartments and hotel rooms.

Along with the pending renovation of the Salt Lake Temple by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said, those projects will make next year the city’s “Year of the Construction Crane.”

Those and other upbeat indicators were unveiled as part of the Salt Lake Chamber-based Downtown Alliance’s annual assessment of economic, social and building trends in the city’s central business district, known as its State of Downtown report.

The new economic benchmark study was released Wednesday as part of a celebration held at downtown’s historic Exchange Plaza, with more than 100 merchants and business owners in attendance.

Commissioned by the Downtown Alliance and conducted by analysts at real estate firm CBRE, the study finds that Utah’s capital ranks high among comparable cities, many with larger populations, for the recent growth in its working-age population.

Those workers are younger — median age just above 32 — and have more technology degrees per capita than their counterparts in at least six other metropolitan areas.

And at least in the technology sector, the average wages in a range of top jobs are lower here than in Seattle, Denver, Portland and Austin, CRBE found. Only similar workers in Omaha and Boise had lower average wages, at $70,349 and $66,556 yearly, respectively, compared to Salt Lake City’s average annual wage of $71,710.

Baldwin and others also pointed to 95 technology companies now with operations in the downtown core as a sign of success in bringing in more workers and recruiting more firms into the “ecosystem” of high-tech employers.

As part of Wednesday’s event, Molly Mazzolini, a principal with the Salt Lake City-based design and marketing firm Infinite Scale, received the alliance’s 2019 Vasilios Priskos award, named for the late real estate broker and downtown champion who died in 2017.

The Downtown Alliance also recognized the arts group Artspace Utah; Tin Angel Cafe; and event organizer Excellence in the Community for contributions to downtown nightlife and vibrancy.

Derek Miller, CEO and president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said their work had added “color, texture and stability to the city."

Such urban attractions and cultural events also are increasingly making the business core an attractive place to live, Miller and others said — with key economic advantages.

The CBRE report found that Salt Lake City has relatively large concentrations of well-trained workers ages 25 to 44 living within a two-mile radius of downtown’s job centers, comparable in terms of degrees per capita even to tech hubs such as Austin and Seattle.

Those pockets of skilled labor have helped drive a historic spate of apartment construction across downtown, with nearly 3,600 apartments coming on line in the downtown core since 2000 and another 1,343 units in the pipeline, Vance said.

The report found that despite those trends, apartment vacancies downtown remain low and rents continue to climb. In fact, Salt Lake City ranked near the top of competing cities for the most jobs per apartment unit, at slightly more than 10 jobs.

That said, Utah’s capital still ranks as an affordable city relative to other Western cities when it comes to housing, according to CBRE’s research.

Brewer and others called for construction of even more downtown residential units, built at higher density — but added that it would need to be done with a plan to manage increased traffic.