Guest opinion: Tech centers and resort economies don’t mix
Has it occurred to Parkites that tech innovation centers and resort economies don’t work well together? Apparently not, judging by the number of letters and statements supporting the existing Summit Research Park as opposed to the new Dakota Pacific Real Estate development plan. It should be possible to easily defend the research park concept by citing the research parks in similar communities like Aspen, Jackson Hole, Tahoe, Vail, Sedona and so on. Wait, you say there are none? What could that possibly mean?
It means two things. First, there is something mythological about our notions of how the tech innovation sector works; and second, diversifying not will solve our growth/development/traffic problems and build community resilience.
We have this image of tech entrepreneurs arriving with buckets of venture capital they spend lavishly to attract brilliant minds that demand a resort lifestyle. Nothing else matters. But apparently it doesn’t work like that. Growing tech firms want the same things other businesses want — cheap land and infrastructure; low facility costs; low-cost, well-educated, mobile labor living in affordable housing. Tech wants immediate adjacency to major universities where it can turn expiring student visas into J-1 visas.
It should be clear that little of the above exists in Park City. But it does just down the hill, along the Wasatch Front, where this thing called Silicon Slopes has popped up. In other words, Park City can’t compete with urban Utah for tech business. Never could, and it puzzles me how the idea ever went forward.
We actually possess one small piece of data about how tech employment works in Park City: Skullcandy, the only Summit Research Park tenant. People in a position to know tell me that 70% of Skullcandy employees commute from Salt Lake City, and they do so because they like their affordable, high-amenity housing in engaging neighborhoods. In other words, Skullcandy dumps a bunch more traffic onto I-15 and Kimball Junction while its payrolls get spent in the valley. Great, let’s do that 15 more times. The new Dakota Pacific proposal tries to build that kind of diverse, walkable, high-amenity community locally, where its adjacency to transit won’t generate new traffic, and its income will get spent locally. If the enemies of traffic realized this, they would love the idea.
And then there’s the idea that diversification reduces Park City’s vulnerability to recessions that damage tourism and travel — such as the 2008 real estate meltdown. We recovered from that, of course, and you can argue that the local power for that recovery came from — wait for it — real estate. Now we have the 2020 pandemic recession, whose story is still unfinished. But recovery is on the horizon, and it is pretty clear the community’s resilience has been enabled by the nonprofit sector, the philanthropy that supports it, and intelligent government. Neither 2008 nor 2020, so far, support the idea that diversification is a magic recession bullet.
A telling fact is that in developing Park City’s Bonanza district, a higher-density, affordable, walkable, diverse, transit-oriented development with a strong community feel makes sense to a great many people. So why, when Dakota Pacific proposes that for Kimball Junction, does it become a traffic-generator and community-killer? Beats me. So let’s be bold — dump this outmoded notion that a Summit Research Park will solve any of our problems when the evidence is that it would do nothing and possibly worsen them. We are lucky, actually, that it was economically unfeasible in the first place.
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