Salt Lake City was founded on a religion imported from the East. Its neighboring city to the north, Ogden, has its roots in the Wild West.
And therein lies all the difference.
Ogden is technically the oldest town in Utah, first settled by trapper Miles Goodyear in 1846. In a couple of years, Fort Buenaventura, as the little town was known, was purchased by the Mormons for less than $2,000 and renamed it Ogden, but even then the town was not tamed. Ogden has always had a reputation for pushing the limits, inspiring the probably apocryphal quote from gangster Al Capone, “This town is too tough for me.”
Historic 25th Street has been the site of gun violence, gambling, shootouts, prostitution, liquor, opium dens. “We’ve been able to maintain the Wild West narrative, but blend it with the new,” says three-term Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell.
A lot has changed in Ogden, but fortunately, maybe accidentally-on-purpose, a lot hasn’t changed. And, as is true in many cities, what remains is what has saved the city. As Salt Lake City raced to join mainstream America, Ogden remained something of a backwater, a memory city, a relic of its former self. Really good restaurants were scarce, the cultural scene was provincial and although everyone loved Ogden, those declaring their love for that city had often moved to Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake gutted its downtown and sabotaged it repeatedly—once by building the Crossroads Mall, then by agreeing to the development of Gateway which pulled retail trade from the heart of downtown to its edges, and again by building City Creek Mall which undermined Gateway. City Creek was supposed to revitalize downtown but its outside-in design followed the footprint of former successes of mall developer Taubman, the premier mall company in the nation.
The trouble being: Downtown Salt Lake didn’t need a mall. Malls are by their nature lobster traps—shoppers park in the mall, shop in the mall and drive away from the mall. No one is strolling Main Street. City Creek failed at reviving Salt Lake’s downtown.
Meanwhile Ogden had what Salt Lake needed: a couple of lively downtown blocks lined with independent stores, restaurants and bars. An actual downtown scene. “The heart of Ogden is small businesses and there’s such a private/public partnership on this—including housing as well,” says Sarah Toliver, President and CEO of Visit Ogden. And Ogden’s city fathers and mothers got it. “We’ve worked to keep out the big chains,” says Caldwell.
In spring, 2019, Ogden City, with its consultant Design Workshop, kicked off a multi-month planning process to create a new Downtown Master Plan, one that suits the city’s character and history, one that reflects Ogden’s personality and doesn’t try to mimic successes in other cities. Denver-based landscape architecture, urban design and planning firm Design Workshop is helping with the open process which has invited suggestions and comments from the public, online and in a series of public meetings. Goals include increased walkability, greater connectivity of public transit, developing strong social services, schools, day care, groceries and open space with an eye to attracting permanent residents, and increasing the quality and number of city events.
ROOSTER’S B STREET: (2525 B Ave.)
A longtime anchor in downtown Ogden, this Trackline branch is where the beer is brewed—in a funky, casual atmosphere with a patio and beer-friendly food.
WB’S EATERY: (455 25th St)
A concept from Amy Wanderley-Britt (owner of Pig & A Jelly Jar), the corner restaurant in the Monarch serves coffee and snacks by day, wine and snacks by night.
PEERY LOFTS: (2461 Adams Ave.)
The 106-year-old Peery Apartments, recently used as low-income housing, are being renovated into a contemporary loft space.
01 ARTS PLATFORMS: (25th & Adams)
The former vacant lot is now used as a community performance and exhibition venue.
This is part of a plan that’s already happening, although Tolliver admits there’s been a slowdown to address COVID-19 concerns. Music fans prefer Ogden’s Twilight concerts to Salt Lake City’s series, which have been bounced around town like a hot potato instead of a hot opportunity. Building on the old saying “you can’t go anywhere without going to Ogden,” coined with nine rail lines connected in Ogden, the city has designated the Nine Rails Creative District, already anchored by Rooster’s brewery and Rachel Pohl’s mural at 25th & Adams (in partnership with the Weber Art Council), the beginning of the Painted Streets project, several outdoor video projections during First Friday Art Stroll, and MOMENTS Festival, a one-night festival of ephemeral art. The idea is to support an arts epicenter, a place for artists to live and create.
Salt Lake City took a step in this direction with Artspace back in 1979. But Ogden keeps moving ahead with the idea: In 2020, Thaine Fischer opened The Monarch, a multi-use creative and business space whose fluid definition of what “belongs” leaves it open to a wide possibility of uses: event venues, artist’s studios, exhibit spaces. It’s located in the heart of the Nine Rails district in a converted enclosed 60,000 square-foot parking garage originally built to service the Bigelow Hotel. Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012 because of its architecture.(It was originally designed by Leslie S. Hodgson who also designed Peery Lofts, Peery’s Egyptian Theater and the Bigelow Hotel. Sliding into decrepitude, it was rescued by Fischer-Regan Enterprises, an entity whose plan is to redevelop Ogden’s historical assets.
An eye towards the future with respect for the past seems to be the formula that is working for Ogden. Other mid-size Western cities like Boise and Bend have used the same philosophy. Why doesn’t Salt Lake City?
“Soul matters,” says Mayor Caldwell.
For more on city life, click here.
To learn more on visiting Ogden, click here.