Salt Lake mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall outlines plans for creating a tech ecosystem in the capital city

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall, unveils her tech ecosystem plan following a tour of Recursion Pharmaceuticals at The Gateway on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019.

If elected next month, Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall said Monday that she would begin working “on Day One” to cultivate a sustainable ecosystem for tech companies to grow in the state’s capital.

The city has fertile soil to bring in the economic benefits of the state’s booming technology industry, the Salt Lake City councilwoman argued, pointing to its urban and socially progressive community, a growing international airport and a number of colleges and universities providing a ready workforce.

But poor air quality, a reputation for hostility to businesses and a lack of affordable housing, among other issues, are holding the city back, she said.

“I’m tired of Salt Lake City losing out on these high-paying jobs with our skilled labor, our educated workforce here in Salt Lake City who needs these jobs here,” Mendenhall said after a tour of Recursion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company located in the Gateway downtown. “We need this kind of industry here for our tax base, as well. We’ve had too many unicorns slip through our fingers down to the southern portion of Silicon Slopes.”

To address the problem, Mendenhall said she would convene a task force, if elected, to better understand the challenges and opportunities for growing tech and to identify actions to help accomplish that goal. She also plans to launch a targeted educational campaign that would promote and attract Salt Lake City to innovators and business leaders and to explore improvements to permitting and other city regulations.

“Mayors don’t get to pick which companies come to their cities and which don’t,” she acknowledged, “but they do get to choose who to prioritize our investment and our focus [on] as we work to attract the kind of companies that share our values and want to help us grow our city in the right way.”

The mayoral hopeful also pointed to her plans to improve air quality and to increase affordable housing, which she said could help attract businesses to invest in the area.

During the campaign, Mendenhall has advocated for more aggressive carbon reduction goals, incentives to clean up the dirtiest buildings in the city and creation of a program for residents to swap out polluting snowblowers and lawn mowers for climate-friendly ones.

To increase the city’s affordable housing stock, she has called for low-interest loans for landlords to help them keep rental properties maintained without rent hikes and a “top-to-bottom” review of city zoning to encourage more homes and apartments.

Blake McClary, a leader in the tech industry who runs the Salt Lake City chapter of Silicon Slopes, said Mendenhall’s policy ideas would help shift the relationship between City Hall and tech businesses, which have not communicated well in the past.

“This is the first time in the number of years I’ve been doing this that we’ve had a leader from city government come to really listen and put together some actionable plan and the task force, all of it, is fantastic,” he said Monday.

Mendenhall’s opponent, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, has also advocated for the creation of a tech ecosystem in Salt Lake City, arguing that the city has missed out on the industry in part because of a lack of collaboration with the state. If elected, she has promised to act as a convener to ensure support for businesses looking to come to Salt Lake City.

The candidate also points to her work to develop and grow businesses through her work at Zions Bank and to her service on the executive board for Silicon Slopes — experience she thinks makes her best suited to realize that vision.

“I have connections in the business community,” she said during a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “I have been connecting in that tech industry world through my full-time job as a banker and my relationship with Silicon Slopes. I feel that will be very helpful as we move forward and try to recruit those technology companies to Salt Lake City.”