Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

What’s Behind Salt Lake City’s Remarkable Recovery?

Downtown activity in Utah's capital city is far greater than it was even before the pandemic, according to some reports. While parts of the local economy still struggle, tourism has roared back.

An aerial view of Salt Lake City, which has far and away the strongest pandemic recovery of any city in the U.S. Downtown activity from March to May of this year was 139 percent of what it was during the same period in 2019.
In Brief:
  • Downtown activity in Salt Lake City this spring was 139 percent of what it was during the same period in 2019, according to a report from the University of Toronto School of Cities.

  • It was by far the strongest recovery of any city in the U.S., according to the report.

  • The use of cellphone location data gives a limited window into urban health, but experts aren’t surprised to see Salt Lake City’s strong economic recovery.

  • The best thing about hosting the USA Volleyball youth tournament in Salt Lake City is that it brings about 30,000 people downtown, says Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance. The next best thing is this: “They come and play volleyball for 90 minutes and then they go shopping for four hours.”

    With many big-city downtowns struggling to find a way forward after the COVID-19 pandemic altered their economies, Salt Lake City is on a decidedly different path. According to one study from the University of Toronto School of Cities, which uses cellphone location data to monitor activity downtown, Salt Lake City has far and away the strongest recovery of any city in the U.S. Downtown activity from March to May of this year was 139 percent of what it was during the same period in 2019, according to the report. For a growing city like Salt Lake, where job losses during the pandemic were only about half of the nationwide average and just a fraction of some other big cities in the west, it’s almost inaccurate to call it a recovery at all, Brewer says.

    “In some ways, I’m kind of done comparing it to pre-pandemic,” he says. “It really has no bearing: We have moved on.”

    How Is Downtown Recovery Measured? 

    There are lots of ways to measure the economic well-being of an urban neighborhood. Metrics like office-occupancy rates, transit ridership and city sales tax revenues are all indicators that researchers have followed closely since the onset of the pandemic, says Karen Chapple, director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

    “All these are part of the picture, but when it comes down to it, the whole picture is given by humans being downtown,” she says.

    Chapple and her colleagues have built a website,, which tracks the number of unique visitors to cities’ downtowns using data from Spectus, a location tracking tool that is meant to remove personally identifiable information from its data. To measure recovery rates, the researchers simply compare the number of unique visitors to a downtown in a given period to the number of unique visitors in the same period in 2019, before the pandemic began.

    The data and the method are limited in a few ways, Chapple acknowledges. Downtowns are defined as the ZIP codes with the highest employment density in a given city, which provide an inexact and somewhat inconsistent picture of downtowns. Secondly, Chapple says she’d like to know more about the data itself; some sources suggest that location data are coming from a sample of just 2 percent of cellphone users, which might skew the results in significant ways.

    Bigger cities often have ZIP codes that are exclusive to the central business district, says Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow with the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings Metro, who studies downtown economies. Smaller cities often have ZIP codes that straddle downtowns and residential neighborhoods. With more people spending time at home and in their own neighborhoods since the pandemic began, tracking unique visitors by ZIP code is an imperfect way of looking at downtown activity, she says.

    Still, there’re lots of reasons to believe that Salt Lake City’s downtown is in uniquely good shape, Loh says. That has much to do with the shape it was in before the pandemic as how it’s weathered the turbulence since then.

    In Salt Lake City’s case, Loh says, “It’s not a recovery — it’s just growth.”

    How Did the Pandemic Affect Salt Lake City? 

    Researchers say Utah did a relatively good job managing the pandemic, especially in terms of limiting economic damage. The state’s per capita death rate from COVID-19 was lower than most other states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Local and state leaders also brought early focus to the economy, seeking to limit business closures.

    Ana Valdemoros, a Salt Lake City councilmember who represents the downtown, also says the city’s financial management helped set it up to avoid laying off public workers and to better support businesses in the early days of the pandemic. Politico’s State Pandemic Scorecard ranked Utah in third place for how state policies affected “lives, jobs, education and social well-being.”

    The state issued an economic response plan within weeks of the first shutdowns, says Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. Local business leaders pushed to stay open as much as possible throughout the pandemic. At the deepest part of its dip, Utah had lost about 7 percent of its jobs, while the national average was 14 percent and some states saw as much as 25 percent losses, according to Gochnour.

    “I’m not saying we did everything right — we had tons of problems,” Gochnour says. But the strong growth in the state going into the pandemic, and the diversity of the regional economy, helped Salt Lake manage the disaster.

    Why Is the Regional Economy So Strong?

    Salt Lake City’s strength relies on the diversity of its economy, experts say. While the state is among the largest by land area, almost the entire population lives in the Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem combined statistical area. Both the county and the state rank at the top of the Hachman Index, a measure of how similar state economies are to the national economy. Gochnour notes that neighboring states have relatively specialized economies — gaming and mining in Nevada, energy in Wyoming — but Utah also has strong tech, tourism, agriculture, distribution, health and education sectors.

    “The diversity really helped us,” Gochnour says. “As tourism got hit really hard, there are other sectors that held strong.”

    Salt Lake is also increasingly benefiting from in-migration, says Brewer, of the Downtown Alliance, where for many years its growth was due to natural increase. That’s partly due to the lower cost of living in Salt Lake City compared to other western metros. But housing costs are rising there, like they are in many other places.

    How Is the City Growing? 

    “We have been growing steadily for a very long time and that trajectory started to bend a little more significantly probably five years ago,” says Brewer.

    Relatively few people live in downtown Salt Lake compared to other big metros, he notes, but that is slated to change. Developers currently have about 3,100 apartment units under construction in downtown Salt Lake City; that is likely to bring an additional 5,000 residents (with 1,300 dogs) downtown in the next few years, Brewer estimates. The downtown’s busiest days all coincide with major sporting and cultural events, which supports nearby businesses. But permanent residents support a different sector of businesses.

    State and local officials have been working to offset the growth in housing costs by passing bills to support new affordable housing and loosen zoning rules to permit more housing construction. Homelessness is a growing concern, and is becoming an important issue in the upcoming mayoral race. But the city and its environs remain very attractive to people with wealth. The state Department of Transportation recently approved plans to move ahead with an eight-mile gondola that would carry people to two popular ski resorts; it would be the longest gondola in the world.

    In the city, says Valdemoros, the city councilmember, it’s important to keep the focus on building densely in areas that are well-served by transportation infrastructure. Residents are also demanding more green space, she says. And leaders are pushing developers to build larger apartments to support families. Downtown Salt Lake City needs to be “a place for everyone and everything,” she says.

    “Salt Lake City only has space to grow up,” Valdemoros says.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
    From Our Partners