Mayor Mendenhall: Building a Sustainable Tech Ecosystem

During her mayoral inauguration on January 6, Erin Mendenhall conveyed an inspiring vision for the future of Salt Lake City. Mayor Mendenhall drew from her experience on the city council and as an air-quality advocate to signal a commitment to the voices of her constituency. In describing the function of her new role, Mendenhall made it clear that she intends to create a higher quality of life for all Salt Lake City residents.

“The fundamental work of being mayor is to ensure that the city runs well for its people – all of its people…”

Mendenhall won the 2019 Mayoral Election with 57.98% of the vote, making her the third female mayor of Salt Lake City. Her campaign was based heavily on creating a more environmentally sustainable city, along with a pledge to address the poor air quality in Utah’s capital. Throughout the election season, Mendenhall also vowed to create a “sustainable tech ecosystem” and grow Salt Lake City’s affordable housing stock. Air quality, tech expansion, and affordable housing are three of Salt Lake City’s most pressing issues; therefore, Mendenhall’s policies must be sound. This article is the first of a series that will break down the main points of the new mayor’s policy plans, beginning with her “sustainable tech ecosystem.”

“Create a Sustainable Tech Ecosystem in Salt Lake City”

In recent years, tech companies from all around the world have been flocking to Utah’s “Silicon Slopes” for a variety of reasons. First, the Salt Lake International Airport is just a two-hour flight from Silicon Valley, which makes it an attractive, more affordable location for companies. Second, Utah has historically harbored important tech advancements such as the first electronic television transmission in 1927, and the founder of Atari who grew up in Clearfield, Utah. Third, there is no shortage of talented engineers, web-designers, or innovators in the state. Compared to Palo Alto, California, Utah is a much more affordable option for recent college graduates to start their careers, and the University of Utah is becoming a well-known school for producing bright tech graduates. These benefits have caused the massive influx of tech companies moving their bases to Utah’s Silicon Slopes, and there is no sign of this trend slowing down. Utah’s tech sector is the state’s fastest-growing and highest-paying industry, which produced $2.5 billion in state and local taxes in 2018. High-paying jobs and large tax revenues are precisely the reasons that Mayor Mendenhall wants to attract more tech companies to Salt Lake City, rather than letting them slip to the suburbs.

What Does Mayor Mendenhall Plan on Addressing?

Mayor Mendenhall’s policy plan provides what she believes to be Salt Lake City’s biggest weaknesses in drawing in more tech.

  1. “Salt Lake City has a reputation for being hostile to businesses” – Mendenhall believes that Salt Lake City must become “easier and more efficient to work with” for companies – especially startups.
  2. “The poor quality of our air” – In her plan, Mendenhall cites a tech CEO who told her that, “Air quality is the No. 1 issue every out-of-state candidate brings up during the candidate-acquisition process, and when you are competing with Google or J&J to land a candidate, these things matter.” This is not only an issue that the Mayor wishes to address in her tech-building strategy, but it was also the backbone of her mayoral campaign this year.
  3. “The state of Utah’s reputation for the poor treatment of women” – While there are a variety of reasons why Utah must address this issue, Mendenhall says it plays a large role in deterring female employees and employers. WalletHub released its 2019 state rankings for women’s equality, placing Utah at the very bottom for the second year in a row.
  4. “The lack of affordable housing inventory in the city” – The Mayor’s policy plan states that large companies are concerned about housing for their employees, thus Utah’s capital must increase its number of affordable units. Mendenhall has laid out a separate plan to revamp Salt Lake City’s affordable housing stock – to learn more about this plan, click here.
  5. “Salt Lake City’s transit system needs to keep growing” – Mendenhall believes that making transit easier and more accessible is a vital task for her plan to bring more tech to the city. Her plan points to Salt Lake City’s recent “Transit Master Plan” as the direction the city must continue to accomplish this feat.  
  6. “A general lack of understanding of Salt Lake City’s academic credentials” – Mendenhall says that the research technology education of the University of Utah and Westminster are vastly overlooked on a national scale. The Mayor plans on creating a greater partnership between the city, its universities, and businesses to help create a sustainable tech ecosystem in Salt Lake City.

Mayor Mendenhall’s Biggest Policy Commitments

  1. “Convene a multidisciplinary task force to explore and guide possible actions”

The first part of Mayor Mendenhall’s tech plan works to gather “leaders from the tech sector, Silicon Slopes, the business community, surrounding universities, labor, and other communities.” This “multidisciplinary task force” will guide and monitor the city’s progress in attracting more tech companies and ensuring sustainability. The task force will play a major role in implementing most of Mayor Mendenhall’s policies regarding her vision of building a sustainable tech ecosystem.

  1. “Focus outreach on businesses that will invest back in our city”

Mendenhall’s plan for tech in Salt Lake City prioritizes both sustainability and equitability. This entails bringing in companies that will commit to “sustainable development, good pay, union labor, and fair treatment of workers.” Some have argued that a greater tech presence in Salt Lake City could hurt middle to low-income residents’ ability to reside in the city. This portion of Mayor Mendenhall’s plan is an attempt to address those concerns.

  1. “Bring in tech as a partner in growth”

Mayor Mendenhall believes that tech can help guide and improve Salt Lake City, as its population continues to expand. Rather controversially, her plan argues that major tech companies share the same concerns as the city’s residents, i.e. poor air quality; therefore, tech innovations will ultimately benefit the public interest. Mendenhall’s critics have retaliated against the assertion that “big-tech” and the city’s residents are unified in their goal of fighting poor air quality. Due to the potential of vying interests, this portion of Mendenhall’s policy may garner future speculation.

These three policy commitments do not represent every aspect of Mayor Mendenhall’s plan. To find out about every policy commitment, click here.

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