|Would you see this at Sacrament meeting?|
One of the projects financed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints triggering controversy even among ranks of observant Mormons is in the news again. On July 9th, 2013, the New York Times published a story entitled "Mormon-Backed Mall Breathes Life into Salt Lake City" which shows that the City Creek Center has made a positive contribution to the economic and cultural life of downtown Salt Lake.
City Creek Center opened in March 2012, and was financed entirely by the LDS Church without the use of any tithing funds. Mall operator Taubman Centers said it owns the retail buildings and operates the place under a long-term lease from City Creek Reserve Inc. The most recent cost estimated published by KSL Channel 5 on June 19th, 2013, says that the cost is widely believed to be $1.7 billion, and that the accompanying condominium towers may have pushed the total cost to $2 billion. The LDS Church neither confirms not denies these numbers. Business leaders and developers credit the mall with spurring new business and enlivening what had been an increasingly seedy downtown core, although there are indications that the nearby Gateway Mall, a more family-oriented center, has paid a price. They saw sales decline around 20 percent to $150 million during 2012, and some of its tenants migrated to City Creek. Here are some of the facts and stats from the story:
-- Added 2,000 jobs and brought more than 16 million visitors into downtown, as well as provided 1,700 additional jobs during construction.
-- Helped downtown retail sales increase by 36 percent, or $209 million, in 2012. Convention visitors account for as much as 35 percent of retail sales.
-- All 111 rental apartments are fully leased.
-- Of the 424 condominiums, approximately 50 percent have been sold. Current market prices range from $486,000 for a two-bedroom unit to $213,000 for a 634-square foot studio.
What the Times did not include in the story was that City Creek Center has already received critical acclaim from a number of sources. On January 15th, 2013, KSL reported that International Property Awards named City Creek Center the Best Retail Development in the Western Hemisphere, and the third best worldwide, citing sustainable design, community collaboration, and breathtaking features and amenities as positives. But in 2008, long before the mall's completion, the Sierra Club issued a report on faith-based environmental initiatives which praised the LDS Church for its commitment to be good stewards in designing the mall. They said the mall placed a high priority on good health, the natural environment and quality of community life, and cited the employment of new-urbanism practices by choosing locations and designing projects that are transit-oriented and encourage walkable communities and more efficient energy and water use.
Nevertheless, the Times cites reaction from two different Mormons to illustrate the split within the LDS community on the project. Derek Staffanson, a local LDS member, has mixed feelings about the mall project:
"...I’m very disappointed with the manner in which the LDS Church chose to develop the area, the use to which they put it, and what that implies about the church’s priorities. If they had really been concerned about the local community and ending the blight, they would have built a mixed-income, mixed-use community, focusing on developing local entrepreneurship, community centers and resources, a playground, more like the true walkable urban communities in Europe. That would have truly revitalized the local community, creating more prosperity for all. For this huge sum of money to be spent on an edifice for commerce and conspicuous consumption seems at best misguided.”
However, Kevin Barney, a LDS member from Chicago who visits Salt Lake on occasion, reacted more positively:
“The church put a whole bunch of people to work during a deep recession. For another thing, downtown Salt Lake City had become blighted, and that area is sort of like the Mormon Vatican. I think the church had a responsibility to do something about it if it could.”
Another issue which has troubled some observant Mormons is the mall's occasional use of advertising considered to be sexually suggestive. Of course, just because a secular mall is owned by the LDS Church does not require it to precisely mirror LDS moral standards. But take a look at the screenshot of billboard advertising replicated below:
Bare Record was troubled by this, writing "...I find all of this to be quite troublesome. What causes me even greater concern is how we choose to market and advertise our LDS Mall. Here are a few photos that I took along the freeway of the new billboards advertising City Creek. In the first billboard shown, the advertisement uses the word: 'Enchants' to describe City Creek. A synomym for the word 'enchant' is 'beguile'. That word sounds familiar". This, of course, is in reference to the Genesis verse where Eve explains to the Lord that the serpent "beguiled" her and she did eat. On Pure Mormonism, H. Rock Waterman expresses similar concerns, and also questions whether City Creek is as financially healthy as touted.
In response to critics who insisted that the LDS Church spend more money "feeding sheep", FAIRLDS issued this statement recorded on March 25th, 2012:
"Some have insisted that funds would be better if directed to charitable works such as feeding the poor. The Church does have an extensive humanitarian effort. Critics on this point often overlook the fact that Church funds are best managed not by sitting in a bank account, but through prudent investment. Investment in land and real estate development is often a wise and ultimately profitable investment approach It is entirely possible that the City Creek Center Mall will eventually become a money making venture, as the Church collects rent from mall merchants. This investment strategy would allow the Church to, over time, recoup its initial outlay or even make money that could be further dedicated to the Church's religious and humanitarian goals
Critics also overlook the fact that if money is spent to feed the needy, that money is gone. On the other hand, if the Church reinvests in Salt Lake City's downtown core, this provides jobs and economic stimulus, for example, via construction and then the service-industry jobs which will fill the mall upon its completion. While providing fewer short term gains, this long term 'teach a man to fish' strategy could ultimately benefit many more people, by allowing them to 'help themselves'".
There's more than one way to feed sheep, and the best long term solution is to teach sheep to feed themselves, and, subsequently, others. This approach doesn't merely sustain the economy -- it actually GROWS the economy. By building this mall, the LDS Church gave back life to a declining community -- which cannot always be measured in pure dollars and sense. They would do well to clean up the ads, even if they do allow alcohol sales in certain areas and close most of the mall on Sunday.