When Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski took office four years ago, she made history as the first openly gay leader of the capital city and she’s only the second woman to hold the office.
When she leaves her post next month, she’ll become the first one-term mayor in Salt Lake City for nearly half a century.
In the years between, she’s left her mark on Salt Lake City during a period of tumultuous change and conflict with state and local leaders, and amid massive population growth.
Here are four major areas where the city has changed under her leadership:
Climate change and sustainability
Reflecting back on when she first took office, Biskupski said recently that she never expected to become a “climate mayor hero.” “But that has been one of the best surprises of the role and I’ve loved that work on the national level,” she said.
During her tenure, Biskupski has served as chair of the Mayors/Business Alliance for a Sustainable Future and a co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100% Clean Energy and has testified before Congress multiple times on climate-related issues.
In April, she spoke in a House Ways and Means subcommittee, where she asked the federal government to step up to “lead our nation’s efforts to minimize climate impacts.” In October, she asked Congress to support an act that would set a nationwide goal for a 100% clean energy economy by 2050.
Salt Lake City has been leading on those efforts already, adopting in 2016 a program with Rocky Mountain Power to reach net 100% clean energy in the capital city by 2032. Last year, the city worked with the Legislature to expedite that timeline to 2030 with a bill that also creates a framework for other cities to follow suit.
“That is legislation that is being looked at by people all over the country,” she said. “It's one of those times where you've done something and the whole country is going, ‘How did that happen in one of the most conservative states in the country?’”
In 2018, the city created two net-zero fire stations that Biskupski said are now “models for the country.” She’s also praised the city’s creation of a new bulk waste collection program, which was met with anger by a number of city residents but that she has said increased the amount of material the city has been able to recycle from zero to 15 tons.
Shortly after taking office, Biskupski elevated the Department of Economic Development from a division of the Department of Community and Economic Development, signaling a new era in the capital city’s attempts to attract companies.
Under the leadership of former Economic Development Director Lara Fritts, the department had a hand in generating over 9,000 new jobs, drawing nearly $1 billion in capital investment and bringing dozens of new employers to the city.
Among the new developments, online retailer Amazon built an 855,000-square-foot customer fulfillment center and Switzerland-based Stadler Rail opened its first U.S railcar manufacturing and assembly site near the Salt Lake City International Airport. UPS and Post Consumer Brands have also launched major Utah expansions over the past four years.
“We brought in an economic development team that just knocked it out of the park,” Biskupski said.
Theresa Foxley, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, has worked closely with the mayor’s Department of Economic Development and said she thought the decision to lift the department helped the city attract more growth downtown and spurred redevelopment in needed areas.
She also praised the department for engaging with existing businesses about what was and wasn’t working in the city and responding accordingly.
Bringing in “anchor employers,” like Stadler Rail or Recursion Pharmaceuticals in the Gateway, has a positive effect on the community, Foxley said — even for people who don’t work at those companies.
“I think it overall has an enhancing effect,” she said. “It’s a job creation for people that live in and around the city, but then it also has a positive impact on the smaller businesses.”
The mayor’s administration has been deeply involved with the closure last month of The Road Home’s downtown emergency shelter and the shift to three new homeless resource centers dedicated to providing a new model of service focused on moving people off of the streets.
And while Biskupski lists that transition among her successes — despite ongoing concerns over bed space in the new centers — she said her role in the politically fraught process to determine where the shelters would be located is among her regrets.
“When I gave in to the council on agreeing to four resource centers, I never wanted that,” she said. “I was always firm on two. And the minute I agreed to the four, the community went crazy and they were so mad at me. And so I worked very hard to get us back to two” in Salt Lake City.
The mayor said she made that decision against her better instincts in an effort “to get along” with the council “and you know, [because of] the press constantly painting me in this light that I can’t get along with people.”
“But what I'm here to do is represent the public, the people who live here,” Biskupski continued. “And if the decisions I make on their behalf are somehow conflicting with how the council or the state feel, well, oh, well. My job is to have the back of the community and stand up for them.”
Crossroads Urban Center Associate Director Bill Tibbitts, who’s been outspoken about capacity concerns at the new homeless resource centers, praised Biskupski for her “transformational” work over the past few years to increase the city’s affordable housing, with at least 2,500 of those units opened or brought into the pipeline.
“She along with the council — largely the mayor-elect [Erin Mendenhall] — have greatly expanded the city’s efforts to produce housing in general and specifically housing that could reduce the need for homeless shelters,” he said.
The policy that will have perhaps the biggest impact on Salt Lake City moving forward was one Biskupski never implemented — the state’s creation of an inland port and its subsequent takeover of land and tax authority on a large chunk of the city’s northwest side.
The mayor ruffled some feathers among both state and city leaders for declining to participate in the negotiations with the state and for blocking her staff from getting involved, as well. And despite the council’s efforts to block her from doing so, she ultimately opted to sue over the proposal, contending it had illegally usurped municipal functions.
“You can't negotiate your constitutional rights like this,” she said. “That was for me, like, a no brainer.”
Biskupski hopes to see the conclusion of that lawsuit — which will determine who maintains tax and land use authority over the land and could also set a precedent for the division of state and municipal powers that echoes beyond Salt Lake City — by the end of the year.
“I would feel much better about leaving if we win before I exit,” she said.
Deeda Seed, an anti-port activist with the Center for Biological Diversity, praised Biskupski’s leadership on the port.
“She stood up for the city in the face of this very aggressive action by legislative leadership and the governor to usurp the city’s rightful authority while the City Council didn’t and that was a real distinction,” she said.
Win or lose, Biskupski said she “will never have any regret” about bringing the lawsuit forward and praised the female attorneys who “brought an expertise to the lawsuit that really rose to the challenge.”