SLC Council faces wave of public worry as downtown sports district gets first airing

Mixture of concern, excitement over proposed sales-tax hike and Smith Entertainment Group plans.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall listens as Smith Entertainment Group's Mike Maughan speaks to the Salt Lake City Council during a meeting on Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

Amid the buzz of a crowd worried over the future of downtown, notes of an Italian opera began wafting through Tuesday’s Salt Lake City Council meeting.

Sabrina Neilson first voiced her concerns about the future of Abravanel Hall, then slammed the microphone down and belted out a rendition of “O mio babbino caro” to an audience packed into City Hall for a first chance to comment on a proposed downtown sports and entertainment district.

Sound inside the 45-year-old performance hall, Neilson said, can’t be replicated or replaced.

“Abravanel Hall is one of the greatest acoustic halls in America,” she told the council. “This is beyond a tragedy because all of the corners that will be cut in this project would be corners cut on the symphony hall, and they will try to fix their bad acoustics with electronics — which will of course, ruin the entire thing.”

Neilson was one of about 70 speakers who weighed in directly before the council as it considers a half-a-percentage-point sales tax increase to help pay for the downtown district being pursued by Smith Entertainment Group, the organization that owns the Utah Jazz and a newly acquired National Hockey League franchise.

Most of those who attended the hourslong hearing spoke about the importance of keeping Abravanel Hall in its current form, a decision that ultimately rests with Salt Lake County officials, not the City Council.

Carolyn Abravanel, the widow of legendary Utah Symphony conductor Maurice Abravanel — the namesake of the Utah Symphony’s home — urged the council to consider “untold impacts” that a possible demolition of the building could have.

She reminded attendees that the property was a gift from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and asked council members what their legacy would be after their upcoming tax-hike vote, tentatively scheduled for July 2.

“Study what other cultures do,” she said. “Do they replace their history, or do they reinvest in their historical icons? They reinvest because they place value in their historical buildings, and they take pride in honoring their past.”

Mike Maughan, an executive with Smith Entertainment Group, told council members his organization is committed to keeping a symphony hall “on-site.” He did not specify whether his group prefers rebuilding or renovating Abravanel Hall, but did say it will support whatever decision the county makes.

Last week, county Mayor Jenny Wilson issued a statement saying she wants to see Abravanel Hall stay put.

Japantown, project’s lack of details spark concern

If the council approves the sales tax hike, SEG wants to tap up to $900 million of the additional revenue to help pay for renovations to the Delta Center and investments in the district.

Maughan said while the process for creating a district may be accelerated, leaders are still being deliberate. SEG, he vowed, will stay at the table with the city.

The company has launched a website, reimaginedowntownslc.com, where Utahns can give their feedback on the district proposal.

Many residents who spoke on Tuesday said they worried about the short timeline for approving the district and the lack of specificity so far.

“I have not seen more than the broad picture,” Salt Lake City resident Julie Easton Gregerson said. “I listened to the presentation. And by damn, it sounded good. And you know what my dad taught me? That if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true.”

Others, meanwhile, were apprehensive about the impact the project would have on what’s left of Salt Lake City’s historic Japantown, located along 100 South between 200 West and 300 West.

The Japanese Church of Christ, Salt Lake Buddhist Temple and a memorial Japanese garden all call that city block home, remains of a once thriving Asian community demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Salt Palace Convention Center.

“We know that it is in our best interest to be involved in all phases of this project,” Salt Lake Buddhist Temple board member Lisa Imemura said “We asked that Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, and SEG keep this in mind — and make sure that there are a few seats at the table for all of us, especially because it seems to be moving very fast.”

Not all negative

Despite the concerns for the proposed district development, some voiced excitement about the prospect of an overhauled downtown.

Dee Brewer, executive director of the Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance, said many existing downtown businesses want the revitalization efforts to succeed, but they also want to be part of the process.

While the proposed district also creates an uncertain future for the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA), located next to Abravanel Hall, a top museum official told the council she welcomes the “significant opportunity” for the aging facility.

“To many … when they hear UMOCA is going to be torn down, [it] creates a gut response … ushering in the fears of the deconstruction of an organization,” museum Executive Director Laura Allred Hurtado said. “That is not what is happening here. We know and have heard from all partners that UMOCA matters — to us, and to them.”

Salt Lake City business owner Nathan Phillips said he has had “hundreds of conversations” with individuals opposed to the downtown project, but said from his view, a public-private partnership like this one could revitalize more than just the urban core.

“Investment in downtown drives not only investment in the downtown area,” he said, “but across the region, and everyone would benefit.”

CorrectionMay 22, 5 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect the correct the spelling of Sabrina Neilson’s name.