Salt Lake City mayoral candidates outline their plans for bringing new tech companies to the capital city

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City mayoral candidates participate in a debate on July 15, 2019, in the KSL-TV Broadcast House studios about a month before the Aug. 13 primary, when voters will decide which two of the eight candidates will advance to the November election and duel it out to become Salt Lake City's next mayor.

Utah’s technology industry is booming — but its economic benefits have largely been outside the state’s capital city, with companies gravitating instead to cities like Lehi and others along the Interstate 15 corridor in an area known as Silicon Slopes.

Several of the eight candidates for Salt Lake City mayor said they want to change that, promising at a mayoral forum hosted by Silicon Slopes leaders on Tuesday that they would work, if elected, to cultivate economic development in the tech sector.

“Part of the reason we are disconnected [from tech] is we always have a tendency to do what we’ve always done; we lack imagination,” argued David Ibarra, who owns several businesses both locally and internationally.

Former City Councilman Stan Penfold added that while the city has done “a lot of investment of traditional big box manufacturing warehouse sort of stuff out west,” it could do “a lot more around tech.”

Their comments came during an hourlong roundtable discussion hosted at Kiln, a co-working space in The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City, and on the same day a new study from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute outlined the massive impact the tech boom has had on the state’s economy.

The study also found, however, that the tech sector’s expansion has brought major challenges, including heightened demand for housing and pressure on transportation, wage inequities and training enough highly skilled workers to fill hundreds of new jobs created each year.

Several candidates noted that in order for the city to expand into tech, it also must simultaneously address issues like transportation, air quality and affordable housing to ensure Salt Lake City is a desirable place to live and work.

“We’ve got to address fundamentals like transportation [and] housing, so that workers can be here,” said David Garbett, the former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition. “We have to ensure the city is working in areas like the Granary, here in the Rio Grande, to help as we grow so we have those sorts of spaces for tech companies. We’re not going to be a Lehi, but we have many strengths that are leaning more to our advantage than that community.”

Former Sen. Jim Dabakis, who polls show is the current frontrunner ahead of the Aug. 13 election, echoed those sentiments but argued that city officials haven’t been aggressive enough in bringing tech development to the capital — something he said he would personally work on if elected as mayor.

“These guys tell me, mayor, we want you on a red-eye to New York in the middle seat surrounded by screaming children because this is a serious deal and it’s not even a set appointment, we want you to sit outside a decision-maker’s office — I’m going to be there,” he said. “Because all these other problems of homelessness and the rest depend critically on jobs and giving people the dignity and respect that comes from good jobs.”

State Sen. Luz Escamilla argued that the city is in a prime location for a technology hub with the international airport so close and a strategic location near two interstate highways.

But she argued that the city has missed out on tech in part because of a lack of collaboration with the state, which she said has been key in developing the industry in other major hubs. If elected, she said she would act as a convener to ensure support for businesses looking to come to Salt Lake City.

“If you look at other places, if you look at Silicon Valley … [places] where there’s more techie savvy or techie-friendly cities, from Atlanta to Michigan, you’re looking at places where the state is collaborating, almost like an EDCUtah-type thing but for tech companies,” she said. “It has to be very specific when you bring all the players to the table.”

At one point, debate moderators insinuated that the tense relationship between the City Council and Mayor Jackie Biskupski may have rattled some businesses looking at landing or expanding in Salt Lake City, and candidates said they would work to mend those relationships to foster stability for businesses.

“I know what we’ve looked like and I’ve watched us lose opportunities because of it,” Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall conceded, noting that creating a vision for a technology ecosystem would be one of her top priorities as mayor.

“Salt Lake City is the future of tech in Utah,” she said later, “and the Salt Lake City Council and the mayor can work to change zoning if we need to, they can work as the executive director and the board of the redevelopment agency to create incentives to get companies here.”