Going upscale in downtown S.L.

Photo credit: Paul Sableman

Five years ago backhoes started ripping two old, not-so-upscale malls and surrounding buildings in downtown Salt Lake City into rubble. Now, after an immense amount of construction, the new City Creek Center is open.

City Creek is remarkable not only because of its size, architecture and array of retail offerings, but it’s also being hailed as possibly “the largest privately funded development project in the United States,” even as the U.S. retail industry lingers in its state of stagnancy.

On that last point, City Creek is especially impressive, given that it’s privately funded while other developments and businesses seek government assistance through tax breaks, subsidies and other special favors. It’s good to be reminded that true private enterprise is possible. 

On a different note, it has struck me as amusing to see the continual emphasis in advertising and news stories on the fact that this is an “upscale” or “cosmopolitan” shopping center with high-end shops that Utah hasn’t seen before.

OK, so I’m excited about those chocolate shops. But otherwise, I have to say that “upscale” means “not a place I’ll shop often.” If a mall were tailored to my buying habits, it would have a membership warehouse store, grocery store, thrift store (I love rummaging through thrift stores), home improvement store, bookstore and fabric store. Maybe even a dollar store. And a few restaurants. So would my hypothetical shopping center make downtown seedy? Maybe my buying habits – my frugality – make me a “downscale” consumer.

Image is a funny thing. Why is it so important for Salt Lake to have a decidedly upscale mall? Does it go beyond thinking: “Look, now we’re a world-class city! (Please ignore all those penny-pinchers in the uncool suburbs.)”?

I suppose City Creek is meant to be a showplace – to impress visiting tourists, sure, and get them to spend money – but also to be a destination exciting and novel enough to draw in Utahns (like me) who otherwise might not shop outside their own neighborhoods. And let’s allow the free market to work – there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these shops, and there is much to be said for the quality and craftsmanship found in many expensive goods (one reason that they’re expensive).

One of Sutherland’s principles of freedom is “Free Markets as the engine of economic prosperity”: “This means that every Utahn should revere industriousness; that every Utahn should invite the free exchange of goods and services; that every Utahn should expect and encourage the creation of quality products; that every Utahn should view labor and production as part of the broader community as well as individually.”

I do enjoy browsing (and sometimes even buying) in shops that you can’t find around every corner. So despite my budget, I’m looking forward to exploring City Creek Center and its shops. And even if I never do set foot in Tiffany, Swarovski or their like, I’m glad they’re there for those who will.

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