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Provo’s economic vibrancy pillar strengthened by many hands

By Genelle Pugmire daily Herald - | May 15, 2021
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Construction on the new Provo Municipal Airport terminal is taking off because of help from city crews from the Storm Drains and Streets department. May 5, 2021, 

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The final beam is put in place at the top of the new Provo City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. 

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Funding from a $42.8 million PID bond issuance will help create infrastructure for a new Medical Education and Research Campus in Provo. The campus will be home for the proposed Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine and the new home for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions.
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Funding from a $42.8 million PID bond issuance will help create infrastructure for a new Medical Education and Research Campus in Provo. The campus will be home for the proposed Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine and the new home for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions.
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Crews are working hard to meet the deadline for opening the new Provo airport terminals one year from now. Significant work has been completed this past few months with the footings and steel girders in place. Internal dry wall is expected to go up starting in August. May 5, 2021. 

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Eating area in the secure west side of the new Provo terminal. Oct. 6,2020. 

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Rendering shows the baggage claim area to the south end of the termnal. Oct. 6, 2020. 

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Rendering shows internal shot of four gates on the west side of the secured part of the new Provo Municipal Airport Terminal. The Brick shops and food vendors reflect dowtown Provo. Oct. 6, 2020. 

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Rendering shows public entrance on the east side of the new Provo Municipal Airport terminal, Oct. 6, 2020

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Mayor Michelle Kaufusi put on her hard hat and jumped into a backhoe Tuesday, March 23, 2021, and added the first few swipes to demolish the old Shopko store to prepare for The Mix at River's Edge development.

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Mayor Michelle Kaufusi put on her hard hat and jumped into a backhoe Tuesday, March 23, 2021, and added the first few swipes to demolish the old Shopko store to prepare for The Mix at River's Edge development.

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Mayor Michelle Kaufusi put on her hard hat and jumped into a backhoe Tuesday, March 23, 2021, and added the first few swipes to demolish the old Shopko store to prepare for The Mix at River's Edge development.

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Mayor Michelle Kaufusi put on her hard hat and jumped into a backhoe Tuesday, March 23, 2021, and took the first few swipes to demolish the old Shopko store to prepare for The Mix at River's Edge development.

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The front approach to new condos being built at The Mix at Rivers Edge is shown in renderings. March 23, 2021. 

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Renderings show the front of condos to be built at The Mix at Rivers Edge. Building out of the 23-acre mixed-use development began Tuesday with the demolition of the old ShopKo Building on the University Parkway. March 23, 2021. 

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Photo is of the new terminal under construction at the Provo Municipal Airport. May 14, 2021

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Picture shows the two-story terminal at the Provo Municipal Airport from the asphalt that will be covered by layers of concrete call the ramp. This is where the planes will pull up to the terminal. May 14, 2021. 

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Development of the old Union Station in Denver, designed by McWhinney Development that has been selected to redevelop the area where the current city hall and fire station now sit. May 14, 2021. 

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Shops and boutiques inside Denver's redesigned Union Station. The same developer will be designing and redeveloping where the current city hall is standing at Center Street and 300 West.  May 15, 2021.

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Beginning this week, PEG Development has begun construction on Phase 1 of the Freedom Commons project in Provo -- shown in this artist rendering -- that includes a large parking terrace and upscale mixed-use retail and office spaces. It will house the headquarters for PEG.

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An artist rendering of the Freedom Commons project in Provo. The project will include a large parking terrace and upscale mixed-use retail and office spaces. It will house the headquarters for PEG Development.

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An artist rendering of the Freedom Commons project in Provo. The project will include a large parking terrace and upscale mixed-use retail and office spaces.

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PEG Developments and Okland Construction put large cranes in place Monday kicking off the beginning of Phase 1 of the Freedom Commons development on 200 North between 100 West and Freedom Boulevard. Feb. 3, 2021. 

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A PEG Development rendering shows Freedom Commons, the planned new development in downtown Provo. 

One of the four pillars of Provo, according to Mayor Michelle Kaufusi’s State of the City addresses, is being “Economically Vibrant.”

According to online dictionaries, a pillar’s function is to be a load-bearing or stabilizing function, while at the same time making buildings more attractive.

For Kaufusi, being economically vibrant serves to stabilize Provo, while making it attractive to residents, visitors and developers.

Keith Morey, Economic Development director, agrees and said that even with a pandemic, Provo is in a healthy development stage – in other words, economically vibrant.

New developments

At nearly every entrance into Provo there is new construction and development happening. And commercial development isn’t the only growth area. Residential growth is happening, too.

“Despite COVID, 2020 was really a strong year for Provo,” Morey said. “Some of the commercial numbers are impacted by the fact that we had large projects approved like the new city hall, the airport, Freedom Commons, etc.”

The numbers tell the story. Provo issued 224 commercial permits in 2020, of which 22 were for new construction. Beyond that there were 76 applications made for permits. The applications notify the city that a project is forthcoming.

To date in 2021, there have been 87 permits issued with only two being for new construction. The rest are mostly for remodel projects.

Residential permits issued in 2020 were 234 for new construction, with 234 applications being made. Those numbers indicate that 474 units (apartments, condos, homes) in new construction started in 2020.

In 2021, there have been 142 new construction permits issued equaling 714 units being built.

“The lower number so far for 2021 reflects that Provo doesn’t have projects of that scale being approved this year,” Morey said. “There may also be a little slowing this year due to the difficulty in getting materials for new construction and rising construction costs.”

Construction costs on some items have gone up nearly 300%.

Even with some obstacles, what is happening on Center Street, at the airport and on almost every corridor in the city shows Provo is economically healthy.

Even the city’s unemployment numbers are some of the lowest, if not the lowest, in the country, Morey added.

Unemployment

According to the Labor Department, Provo’s March unemployment rate was only about 2.5%. The rest of the country is hovering around 6.7% unemployment.

Even with the population growth coming into the city and county, businesses don’t have enough personnel and are having a tough time hiring. Even drive-thru, fast-food chains are paying up to $15 an hour to lure workers back.

For whatever residents and civic leaders expected to happen because of COVID, Provo experienced little of the downturns other areas of the country felt, in fact, sales tax revenues were slightly up over 2019 figures.

According to preliminary findings on COVID, an impact study for Provo by Ernst and Young shows Provo has done well.

The study said the biggest takeaways from the city of Provo are:

• Impacts to Provo’s economy roughly mirrored Utah County overall, with the city experiencing slightly slower job and labor force growth. Total employment in the city returned to pre-pandemic levels in July 2020 and by September 2020 had grown 1.5% relative to September 2019.

• The unemployment rate in Provo has fallen from a peak of 6.4% in April 2020 to 2.1% in March 2021, which is lower than pre-pandemic levels. This reflects an incredibly tight labor market in Provo, despite the city’s labor force growing 1.8% from March 2020 to March 2021.

“Overall the city of Provo is economically diverse and home to many concentrated and growing industry sectors, especially software and professional services, which have performed relatively well through the pandemic,” the study said. “Strong total job and labor force growth may mask negative impacts to some local sectors though, notably Leisure & Accommodation and the employees who work in these sectors.”

When completed, the full report will include several pages on these key takeaways, plus business trends, demographic trends and response trends.

Ernst and Young found that the COVID-19 pandemic did not create new needs but rather accelerated existing trends and highlighted the importance of previously identified priorities and strategies.

What’s happening

So while residents are reading and hearing about all these positives to the economic vibrancy, many aren’t sure what is really happening to make it so vibrant.

Looking outward from the hub of the city, Center Street and downtown, here is a brief overview of what many may have missed while being closed down or staying at home during COVID.

Downtown

The new Provo City Hall is well on its way to being opened next year. In the meantime, preparations are being made for what will happen to the old main city building.

“The redevelopment of our existing City Hall block is a forward-thinking, once-in-a-generation opportunity for Provo,” Kaufusi said. “It will bring long-term economic vibrancy to downtown Provo while complementing the new Provo City Hall.”

On May 5, 2020, a request for proposals (RFP) was issued for the City Hall block. A Denver developer, McWhinney Development, was selected as the project developer.

“McWhinney is an active mixed-use real estate developer priding themselves on creating exceptional places for future generations,” Kaufusi said. “One example being the historic Union Station redevelopment, now affectionately known as ‘Denver’s Living Room.'”

Kaufusi goes on to say the old City Hall development is at least a 50-year decision and that is why it must be done right.

“Provo’s historic downtown is already an eclectic draw with 73 unique eating establishments representing culinary offerings from around the world,” Kaufusi said. “This redevelopment, with anticipated dining, boutique retail, residential, entertainment and social gathering spaces, will energize our community with even greater economic vibrancy.”

Airport terminal

For residents who may have been out of town or sleeping for the past year or so, the Provo Municipal Airport is getting a new terminal starting with four gates with the intention to expand to 10 gates at its maximum capacity.

“This expansion will provide four gates with a total building area of 65,000 square feet, allowing the airport to meet the increasing demand for commercial airline services in Utah County,” Kaufusi said.

The ability for the terminal to complete construction is a sign of forward thinking and fiscal responsibility by Gleason, airport manager and the Public Works Department of which the Airport is under.

“We wouldn’t be able to build this terminal with today’s construction costs,” Gleason said. “We bought all the steel and concrete early.”

With supplies purchased before COVID, the terminal will be able to meet its May 2021 opening.

One of the gates will have a jet bridge taking passengers directly from the plane to the terminal.

“Provo city’s Public Works employees have been working on this project since late 2019,” Kaufusi said. “Our crews cleared overgrown vegetation and debris, installed two moat crossings, placed an embankment for the new access road, and are currently installing the storm drain.”

Kaufusi noted that because it has been city employees that have done the work, rather than contractors, it has saved the city just under $2 million.

Gleason also said he found a plane de-icer pad that recycles the de-icer and will be a savings to the airport.

To see this new terminal is a dream come true for Gleason. There are just a few other wishes he needs to have come true to make it perfect: 1,400 more feet of runway and two daily connecting flights to Los Angeles and Denver.

“I have been trying to do this for 21 years and each mayor has brought us a bit closer,” Gleason said. “We are not bonding at all for this. It isn’t costing the citizens a dime.”

Gleason said the terminal is in line with cost projections and will be approximately $24 million when completed.

New airport amenities will include the interior of the terminal appearing like the historic downtown Provo area featuring local eateries and shops.

There will be a baggage delivery area, a gathering place for families and large groups to greet people flying in to Provo, such as missionaries, and a children’s play area.

According to Gleason, the new parking lot also will feature electric car charging stations. They will be located furthest from the terminal while room is being made for family cars, vans and SUVs to be up closer.

As a result of the much-anticipated expansion, three new routes to Denver, Tucson, Arizona; and Orange County, California; have been announced, with hopes of more to come, according to Kaufusi.

It would not be surprising if there are two or three more airlines (including Allegiant, which currently flies out of Provo), that will bring services to Provo after the new terminal is completed.

“With four gates we will bring in 750,000 passengers a year and could easily have 20-plus flights a day,” Gleason said.

The terminal is not the only thing happening at the airport. The popularity of private and corporate jets has increased in Provo as well.

“We have three new corporate hangars and two more are being built,” Gleason said.

Gleason noted the continued partnership with Utah Valley University.

“UVU is holding steady as one of the largest flight schools in the country.”

Notable developments

Aside from the new city hall and Center Street reimagining and the airport terminal, there are some other developments that will have an economic impact on Provo.

Mill Race: The Mill Race is a residential and office development located on the property that was formerly a lumber yard/mill that transported and processed timber from the surrounding mountains. This is a four-building development, two will be some of the tallest in the city, that will include a pedestrian bridge from the development to the Utah Transit Authority Intermodal hub for FrontRunner trains, and buses including the popular UVX line.

Harris Music multi-family housing: This multi-unit development is just south of the Provo City Center Temple on the site of the former Bill Harris Music store. This multi-story development also is just north of the Mill Race, making these transit-oriented developments some of the most desired places to live for those who enjoy the more urban walkability of downtown and being within walking distance to FrontRunner.

Freedom Commons: PEG Development is bringing to the downtown area a mixed-use development consisting of two office buildings, large parking structures, a community plaza and surrounding streetscape. The project is a joint effort between PEG, Provo city, Provo Redevelopment Agency, Utah County and the Provo School District.

Freedom Commons is located at 200 North between 100 West and Freedom Boulevard in front of the Smith’s Grocery Store.

Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine: This premier medical and research school offers advanced medical technology focused on preparing physicians with a new innovative and unique high-tech campus. The college’s campus will include three campus buildings with future additional facilities, including an adjacent apartment complex. It is located adjacent to the Timpanogos Golf Club, formerly East Bay Golf Course at the south entrance to Provo.

The Mix at Rivers Edge: After five years of waiting, Provo residents are now able to see construction beginning on this mixed-use redevelopment that will include residential units, office and retail spaces and access to public transit. The Mix is located at the former Plumtree Plaza shopping center along the University Parkway and is a gateway project into Provo and Brigham Young University.

Watch out for: The Splash Summit Water Park has been hard at work this past year doing upgrades to the park, including changing the lazy river into a rain forest of fun. The park is scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend.

The Provo Regional Sports facility being built near the airport will feature more than 20 playing fields for soccer, lacrosse and other sports, playgrounds, concessions and walking trails.

Qualtrics is expanding its operations in north Provo to allow for up to 1,000 more employees. To the south is at the Mountain Vista business park where elite car maker Vanderhall is expanding to provide for more vehicle production.

Provo Towne Centre mall has announced it is seeking a zone change that could allow for housing on 26 acres of its property.

As Provo continues its current dynamic growth people like Morey and Kaufusi see the city historically strong — something which residents and leaders are continuing to keep on track.

“Provo has a good historic core in downtown,” Morey said. “We don’t have to try to reinvent anything.”

With everything that is happening, Morey adds, it’s easier to say what’s not happening.

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