Superlative City, Superlative Service
Originally published February 14, 2013
|Among the many superlatives Provo, Utah, has received in recent years, the most important may have been most optimistic. Photos by David L. Blaylock.
Glance at a list of “best, “top,” or “most” cities in the United States and there’s a high likelihood you’ll see Provo, Utah.
“We’re a really unique city,” said Provo Mayor John Curtis. “We know it’s a great place to live and work, but it’s nice to have people and magazines from around the country recognize this.”
The list of top-10 accolades in recent years are numerous: volunteerism, education levels, charitableness, trail systems, trout rivers, crime rates, business creation, aging, and livability, to name a few.
“We don’t seek out any of these rankings,” Curtis said. “We just get the call that another study by Forbes or Gallup or someone else has recognized another great thing about Provo.”
“It’s not a stretch to say that some of this is thanks to what the city general fund receives from Provo City Power,” he said. The public power utility that serves Provo transfers 10 percent of its revenue to the general fund. It’s a high number, but one that brings the utility pride.
“At the end of the day, we are a standard utility with competitive rates,” said Energy Department Director Kevin Garlick. “But that significant amount transferred to the general fund is where we know that we are really making an impact for the community that we serve. They support the utility and this is a way we can give back to them in the form of city services, buildings and programs.”
“Even when we debate whether the transfer rate is too high—and the mayor is now looking at possibly increasing it to 11 percent—we are quickly reminded that the City Council and the community, for the most part, are comfortable with the way it allows us to help the city as a whole.”
Forty percent of the city’s landmass, including the local hospitals and the Brigham Young University campus, is exempt from property taxes. Despite the utility’s relatively high contribution to the city’s general fund, electricity rates are below those charged by nearby Rocky Mountain Power.
This dedication to making the best circumstances for the community at large is reflected in what might be the most important superlative the city has received in recent years: most optimistic. Even in a down economy, the people of Provo remain certain that their hometown is getting even better with each passing year. In a 2012 Gallup survey of U.S. metro areas, 76 percent of Provo-Orem residents thought their community was getting better; 94.3 percent said they were already happy with the state of their community.
“It all comes back to the friendliness, the overall quality of the people,” said Curtis. “It’s not necessarily unique to Provo, but there’s no question that the people here are the reason we reach all these goals and figure so highly in these rankings and studies.”
Buttressed by a well-educated work force coming from Brigham Young University and nearby Utah Valley University, Provo has weathered the economic downturn better than almost any other city, Curtis said. This is evidenced by the people’s willingness to vote to raise their own taxes to build a new recreation center, he said. “They are optimistic in our community and aren’t afraid to invest in it even when the economy is bad.”
Half a billion dollars in new construction is under way now, much of it focusing on Provo’s downtown, where a new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints temple will replace a fire-damaged LDS tabernacle and where cosmetics and dietary supplements distributor Nu Skin is expanding its headquarters.
The connection to BYU is particularly advantageous, Garlick said. “They’re a major user of power, so we stay close to them and find great opportunities for partnerships. We are currently looking at collaborating on a cogeneration project as they prepare to replace their old heating plant.”
“All these expansions and improvements are really creating great opportunities for us,” Garlick said. “While they are doing all this construction downtown, we are able to come in and put in automatic distribution points to beef up or create more robust service there. We’ll have redundancy so that we can switch and isolate problems more quickly and keep those major downtown businesses operating all the time.”
These improvements are on top of major system improvements that took place a decade ago as Provo prepared to host some games from the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
“It was the first Olympics after 9/11, so we had to go through so much to make sure our system and our personnel were screened and secure,” he said. “We put in some triple redundancy, beefed everything up, and prepared for the worst. When the games concluded and the lights had always stayed on, we knew it was a success.”
Reminders of the Olympics are in evidence throughout Provo. The city, located within an hour’s drive of Salt Lake City and Park City, housed many Olympics visitors. A two-rink arena in Provo hosted women’s hockey events for the games and Provo City Power trucks still proudly bear the Olympics logo.
|When the 2002 Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City, Provo hosted many of the hockey events in a two-rink arena (left) that still serves the peope of Provo. The Sundance Ski Resort (right) also serves the people of Provo, but attracts visiting crowds as well.|
“Not every city gets to host any part of the Olympics, so we’re still proud of what we got to be a part of,” Garlick said. “One of the benefits of having the Olympics is that you force improvements, change the way you think about things, and build what you need, and then all of it stays in your community long after the Olympics end.”
Though the type of crowds that come with the Olympics are not a common occurrence in Provo, the city remains a tourist magnet, with visitors coming for concerts, university events (BYU football, needless to say, is something of a draw), and the outdoors. To the west lies Lake Provo, one of the largest in the state, and to the east the Rocky Mountain’s Wasatch Range. The latter brought Robert Redford to the area, who owns a home in the county, shot the film Jeremiah Johnson on location, and operates the Sundance Ski Resort just outside city limits.
“It’s always surprising seeing the celebrities, including Bill Clinton, who came to visit Redford and the resort,” said Garlick. “You cannot get close enough to his compound to see much, but you do see the occasional famous face around here.”
Part of the reason this area has become such a draw for skiers is the proximity of the slopes to the cities of Provo, Orem, Salt Lake City and Ogden. “Colorado has some of the best mountains in the country for skiing,” said Garlick, who was an avid skier. “But unlike here, you cannot fly into the Denver airport and be set to hit the slopes within an hour.”
To highlight the Provo area’s many recreational opportunities and to celebrate his own 50th birthday, Mayor Curtis spent a day trying to show what a person could pack into a single day, including water skiing in the lake, hitting the Sundance slopes, golfing, and playing touch football with the BYU mascot.
All this came to the fore recently when the mayor pushed for a city rebranding, which included creation of a new logo.
“We realized there are three key reasons why all these reports and magazines tell us that we’re doing things so well, why we live in such a great community,” said Curtis. “First, it’s the friendliness of our people and their attitude, reflected in our very friendly logo font; second it’s our natural beauty and recreation opportunities, seen in the water and mountain in the logo; and third it’s our innovation, industry and entrepreneurial spirit, shown in the rising sun over it all.”
“For the citizens of Provo, it’s all in the mindset,” he said. “We have it great and we are still making it better.”
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