Who knew? Missionary work a recession-buster for Utah County

2013-06-30T00:25:00Z 2013-11-14T19:48:00Z Who knew? Missionary work a recession-buster for Utah CountyGenelle Pugmire - Daily Herald Daily Herald
June 30, 2013 12:25 am  • 

PROVO -- When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it was lowering the age of missionaries last October, few could have predicted how good that could be for Utah County's bottom line.

Nine months later, with 20,000 more missionaries in the field, as many as 900 new missionaries arriving at the MTC each week and an estimated 7,000 missionaries in the MTC at any given time by the end of the year, the effect is clear -- missionary work is good for business.

Recession? Not here

No business knows that better then Mr. Mac, an icon clothier for all things missionary. From their famous two-pant suits, white shirts and ties, Mr. Mac has always been in the missionary business. Tyler Winn, manager of Mr. Mac at the University Mall, said the announcement has brought on good problems.

"We've always been a recession-proof store, but there has been quite an impact to our store," Winn said. "There's been some challenges getting inventory and keeping it in stock. That's a good problem."

April was a record-breaking month for the store; college students finishing up the year went shopping before they left the state.

The bigger issue for Mr. Mac was what to do with all the sister missionaries coming to shop. Up until October Mr. Mac was more geared to the elders' clothing needs. Now more than 50 percent of inventory is geared toward women, up from about 30 percent, according to Winn. The store has been remodeled, new dressing rooms have been added and the front of the store has been made more comfortable for sisters and parents doing shopping.

"We've improved our sister missionary line by more than double and transformed the front of our store windows to sister missionary displays," Winn said.

Jenni Theobald, owner of Sister Missionary Mall in Orem, said her problems are much the same. Theobald would like to build her online services for those living out of the area, but every time she brings in what she thinks will be enough inventory to provide for both the store and online sales, the clothing flies out the physical doors.

"Logistically things are happening. We're flipping our inventory so fast. We'd get huge shipments and after a week or two they would be gone," Theobald said. "This has been very good for our business."

Finally, of course, every missionary needs a set of scriptures with "Sister" or "Elder" engraved in gold. The LDS Church has seen a financial uptick since the change as missionaries purchase scriptures, temple clothes and pocket hymn books.

Missionary medical

That, however, wasn't a huge surprise. Other, less traditionally missionary-related retailers have also noted a bump. Businesses and service industries all over the valley, particularly in Provo and Orem, have felt the positive effect of the age change. Doctors have kept busy with missionaries coming in for physicals. Dr. Justin Jones, a family physician at the Central Utah Clinic, said he was used to giving physicals and filling out medical paperwork for missionaries three to five times a week. Within weeks of the age change Jones was up to 15 physicals a day.

"We really got hit in October, November and early December. We really felt it," Jones said. "It was fun to see it and all the excitement happening."

Jones noted that for the most part things stabilized at about Christmas, but at a new, higher norm. Then the boom shifted to dentistry, as would-be missionaries had their wisdom teeth out. At the offices of Dr. Wisdom Teeth, whose services are just wisdom teeth extraction, things haven't slowed down much since the beginning of the year.

"We're seeing a constant influx of missionaries," oral surgery assistant Haley Hayes said. "All three of our offices are very busy."

Hayes noted they used to have two to four missionaries a week, with two days of the week dedicated for surgeries. Their days would end at about 4 p.m. Now they have three surgery days a week and have extended their hours to close at 7 p.m.

The same flurry of activity can be found at family dental offices around the valley.

"We felt it immediately after the announcement. The next time the office was opened the calls started coming right away," Juli Call, scheduling coordinator for Barry Family Dental Group in Orem, said. "Before we would see three or four missionaries a month for exams. At first after the announcement we were seeing a dozen or more a month."

Call said they also had an influx in couple missionaries. Only in the last month have appointments started to level off, but again, at a higher norm.

Health care providers aren't just treating more future missionaries now than they used to. They're treating more missionaries, thanks to a lot more sitting than young adults are used to and some really intense four-square games.

"There are a lot more missionaries coming through physical therapy," Dr. Brett Butler, a physical therapist, said. "It's not uncommon to have three companionships any time of the day at physical therapy."

In fact, Butler said, "the MTC has more sprained ankles than any other institution in the world." While they can't completely quantify it, Butler also said they regularly see missionaries who are not used to sitting for 12 hours at a time suffering from shoulder and back pain.

Missionary paperwork

A significant chunk of paperwork gets sent to Salt Lake in anticipation of a mission call, and sometimes more is needed after a call. Missionaries going out of the country need a passport, and now stateside Spanish-speaking missionaries need passports because they report to the Mexico City Missionary Training Center. Workers at the Provo post office, where the majority of the passports are issued in Utah County, can verify they are much busier these days, and postal service spokesman Robert Vunder confirmed that a substantial part of that increase is the larger number of LDS missionaries getting passports.

"When they changed the age, walk-in passport business changed," one postal worker noted. On some days there have even been lines.

Missionary tourism

Joel Racker, president of the Utah Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, took a look at numbers collected year-to-year from Smith's Travel Research. He noted that hotels in the convention district, consisting of just more than a mile around the convention center, show Monday and Tuesday hotel usage at 54.2 percent occupancy, up from last year's 49.6 percent. Since Monday and Tuesday aren't hot vacation days, he's guessing hotels are seeing missionary families prior to MTC check-in.

"This is very positive," Racker said. He noted that Utah County is leading the four counties along the Wasatch Front in a variety of tourism-related taxes collected. Restaurant taxes are up 6.4 percent, hotel taxes are up 10.3 percent, and while car rental taxes are down in the other three counties, car rental taxes are up 1 percent. Collectively the taxes are up 6.9 percent.

John Garfield, manager of the Provo Marriott, said they have more families checking in Tuesday to drop their missionaries off on Wednesday. But the Marriott also is playing host to senior missionaries who have been edged out of the MTC because the younger missionaries need the rooms.

"The biggest impact is we now house senior couples, approximately 25 rooms," he said.

He also noted that for the past week they have housed more than 100 new mission presidents who are in Provo for training before they go to their new assignments. This was true for Springhill Suites and the Courtyard Marriott in Provo as well.

Garrett Waters, front desk manager at Springhill, said 80 percent of the hotel was filled with new mission presidents, but they have seen a increase in just the Tuesday pre-MTC stays.

"It's crazy how much it's grown," Waters said. "We've had more influx and every Tuesday it's almost full." Waters said they even offer an MTC rate because of the business.

And then there are the restaurants. Kids have to eat, and missionaries are no exception. Eating establishments like Denny's have seen an increase in Tuesday and Wednesday patrons, particularly since the beginning of the year.

Good economy = good job market

As more students have flocked to the mission field, their peers in school are finding a more welcoming campus job market.

"We've seen the age change play a role on our campus jobs for our students," BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead said. "Several hundred student jobs have been added between now and next spring mostly because of the MTC expansion."

Ruth Todd, spokeswoman for the LDS Church noted, "With the increased number of missionaries entering the Provo Missionary Training Center, managers have hired additional part-time employees needed to support operations ranging from language training to food service and building maintenance. Many of these new employees are students from Brigham Young University."

While the registration offices at BYU and UVU are still waiting to see the impact of the age change on their freshman classes and their sports teams, the opportunities to keep the cafeterias moving are plentiful.

Butler, the physical therapist, is also an MTC branch president serving Japanese-speaking missionaries. He has been in for 16 months and has seen significant growth within the MTC.

"There was one Japanese branch when I started, then two, now three and possibly a fourth. This week we had 80 Japanese missionaries enter the MTC," Butler said.

Travel plans

The white shirts and ties on FrontRunner aren't just businessmen anymore.

Gone are the 14-passenger vans that used to transport missionaries from Provo to the Salt Lake airport. Largely replacing the fleet -- which the LDS Church would have had to expand to meet the needs of more missionaries going out more quickly -- is public transit.

The MTC now sends a good portion of the missionaries on FrontRunner; then they get onto the airport TRAX line in Salt Lake City. While data hasn't been compiled on the numbers of riders, the increase is visible, particularly if you drive past the Provo station on Wednesday morning.

When Elder Jeffrey Holland noted the Lord is hastening his work, he probably wasn't thinking about the residual economic effect. But some business owners like Theobald, Barry and Jones see it as a blessing and an opportunity to enjoy the enthusiasm of the work while benefitting from the revenue stream.

-- Genelle Pugmire covers Provo City, Provo School District, Orem City, UDOT’s I-15 CORE Project. She also tackles variety of other topics including business features.
Read more from Genelle Pugmire here.

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