South Salt Lake, Utah
South Salt Lake: City on the move
Jewel of the Beehive State
SOUTH SALT LAKE, UTAH—Nestled within Salt Lake County and bounded by the Jordan River, South Salt Lake is known as “the city on the move.” It’s a charming city of some 26,777 people, known as a big commercial hub within the Beehive State.
We recently spoke with Mayor Cherie Wood and South Salt Lake Community and Economic Development Director Jonathan Weidenhamer. They told us all about this unique setting. In 2010, Wood became the first female mayor of this city that was settled in 1847 and incorporated 91 years later.
Wood says South Salt Lake is just south of the capital city of Salt Lake City. She explains that 87 years ago, Salt Lake City tried and failed to annex South Salt Lake. This was down to concerns over the funding and installation of a sewer system. In 1938, residents voted to incorporate South Salt Lake as its own entity.
“That is the exciting reason why we were created,” Wood jokes, “so we could get our own sewer! We are seven square miles in the middle of the mountains in the Salt Lake Valley.”
Wood is a longtime veteran of the City of South Salt Lake. She began working for the City when she was 19, and she has seen some 30 years of transitions.
“We are a strong mayor-council form of government, which is somewhat unique for the size of our city,” says Wood.
She explains that larger cities in Utah have this form of local government. Smaller cities are run by city managers.
She describes South Salt Lake as a blue-collar community. Not 20 years ago, it became a resettlement city, taking in many refugees from around the world.
When Wood took office, she informs, the city’s public schools were failing and being closed on a regular basis.
“Our kids were being bused outside of our community for schools,” she adds.
The situation eventually righted itself, thanks in large measure to some strategic grant funding and integration efforts resembling those in New York City several generations ago, as the Mayor reveals.
“It’s helped us to really support our youth and basically build our own work force development for our community,” she says, “and put our youth on a trajectory of success. It makes us very unique. We’re known for this work nationwide. I think it also has helped us develop partnerships that are very valuable to our community. It doesn’t really talk about the economic highlights, but I feel like we’ve had roadblocks as a community. I think that trying to develop ways around them or over them or through them has really helped us create a unique city that we’re super-proud of.”
Today, South Salt Lake is a very culturally and ethnically diverse municipality, as Wood points out.
“We are probably the most diverse city in the state of Utah,” she adds.
Such a peaceful and harmonious place of so many different faces and faiths is the ideal.
“What I want for myself and my family,” says Wood, “I want for every person in our community.”
Weidenhamer spoke of South Salt Lake’s economic advantages. The federal highway system’s interstates (I-15 and I-80) have perennially served as corridors of commerce. Light-industrial and manufacturing businesses brought success to the city. The close proximity to the state capital doesn’t hurt either.
“Salt Lake City has grown in redevelopment, post-World War II in particular,” says Weidenhamer. “That housing bubble started to squeeze further and further out. We started to redevelop. About a third of our city is residential. A third of it is industrial. A third of it is mixed government and commercial, and there’s the railyards.”
This potent economic combination, as he points out, started to bring more affordable housing options as the valley developed. The suburban sprawl came in and around South Salt Lake in the foothills. Also, the economic importance of the nearby University of Utah cannot be overstated.
“We stayed a little truer to our industrial and manufacturing roots,” says Weidenhamer. “My perspective is that we’re a fairly gritty kind of pick-ourselves-up-by-our bootstraps culture, because in our culture, there’s not a whole lot of pomp and circumstance and fanciness here. With that, there’s a lot of people who work really hard and really value the community and value their neighbors and value the relationship of a very small geographic town.”
That small-town feeling also helps South Salt Lake to better interact with policymakers, and it facilitates the interaction of neighbors with each other at community functions, as Weidenhamer opines, adding that it beats anything like it that he has ever seen in his 24 years in local municipal government.
That aspect, he continues, “is really unsurpassed.”
Weidenhamer also extols the efforts of Kelli Meranda and Promise South Lake City, a City-related initiative.
It is, he says, very good at “focusing on celebrating our residents.”
This City-based effort is a network of 14 programs at 12 locations throughout South Salt Lake. It offers free services for youth, families and the community at large. Promise South Salt Lake serves anyone who lives, learns, works, plays and prays within the city.
Weidenhamer also cited the city’s craft industries, arts and cultural aspects and community resources. One is Mural Fest.
“We have 54 murals in a very small area,” he says, “that area that we deem as our downtown. There’s also a ‘Craftoberfest.’ We have a number of breweries and distilleries. The reason these folks are here is that it was too expensive or too fancy to do business in some of the other surrounding cities. They ended up picking up real estate that was cheap five and 10 years ago, and now it’s grown into its own brand.”
Weidenhamer reveals that this creative industries zone is a place wherein the city is starting to see a lot of adaptive reuses. Many older manufacturing and industrial buildings are seeing new life because of this, as he points out.
They are, he adds, “primed and ripe for redevelopment in a lot of ways. Again, we have this basis of a true, authentic resident base. The real estate and prices in Salt Lake to the north are really driving a lot of opportunity for us here.”
Wood shared her colleague’s assessment. The City, she notes, is purchasing property to be repurposed, and the downtown is seeing a real renaissance. It means going up and in more ways than one.
“The only way that we can do it as a built-out city, surrounded by other cities, is to go vertical,” she says. “We put a lot of thought into that, because we have I-15 and I-80 in our downtown area. We also have the S-Line (public transit) streetcar and the UTA (Utah Transit Authority) track—the light rail in that quadrant of the city. We thought this is absolutely where we should fill density. With that coming, we had to do a quick pause and develop a public infrastructure district to actually pay for the sewer, because we are going to have to increase the sewer needs in that area. We felt strongly that this cost should go on the developers and not necessarily on the existing residents of South Salt Lake, because we just have a very small sewer system that serves our residents.”
Weidenhamer explained how the State of Utah and taxes factor into this.
“Historically,” he says, “we haven’t had a huge tax base, so that meant neither a huge property tax base, nor a sales tax base. Now we do have some, but because
of that confluence and how the State’s sales tax was structured, we haven’t historically built a lot of what I call amenities—public amenities for infrastructure, like recreation. We have always relied on Salt Lake County to provide those for us.”
He continues that the city boasts a great number of local parks that are known for their high quality. This includes several facilities wherein the City provides community programming for families.
“We don’t have fancy ice rinks or stadiums or regional facilities, per se,” as Weidenhamer points out, but what the City of South Salt Lake does have, it handles very well indeed.
Wood reveals that the city triples in size during the day, with the influx of workers coming in. Getting more such people to actually call the city home is a future goal. With it being such a charming and convenient place, why not? As in real estate, a city’s biggest advantage is often its location. Wood says the word is out about South Salt Lake.
“We are 20 minutes away from everything,” she says Wood, “We’ve finally made it to the big leagues!”
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AT A GLANCE
South Salt Lake, Utah
What: a thriving city in the American West
Where: in the heart of Utah