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A City’s Evolution

Published: 10/02/2011
By Kevin Woo, ONE+ -- Not long ago, Jan Sneegas began planning her organization's 2009 annual event. As she ran through the list of requirements she concluded that nothing was overly onerous. The host city (preferably a West Coast destination) needed enough meeting space to accommodate 3,500 attendees during plenary sessions. The host hotels and meeting space had to be affordable and modern, and all facilities had to have green initiatives.

As Sneegas evaluated the options, San Francisco and Los Angeles were immediately eliminated because of cost. That left Phoenix, Portland and Salt Lake City as the leading contenders. After a thorough vetting of all three cities, Sneegas chose Salt Lake City, because it put together what she called "an elegant" meeting proposal. The host hotels (the Hilton Salt Lake City and Downtown Marriott) were within walking distance from the convention center, and (much to her surprise) the host hotels and many of the restaurants in town had already adopted extensive green initiatives. Her decision seemed like a no-brainer.

That Salt Lake City was chosen as the host city for a convention certainly isn't news. After all, it played host to the world in 2002 with the Winter Olympic Games. What makes the selection interesting in this case is that Salt Lake City-a town whose history is tied deeply with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-was selected to host the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) of Congregations' annual meeting.

It would be an understatement to say that the Unitarian Universalists are on the opposite end of the religious (and political) spectrum as the Mormons. UUA members don't believe in a specific theology, but instead draw inspiration from a variety of Judeo-Christian religions. The group is made up of people from different faiths, atheists and many others who feel marginalized by society. Some consider themselves "free and (on) a responsible search for truth and meaning."

Not surprisingly, when Salt Lake City was chosen as the convention destination not every UUA member was warm to the idea.

"We got some push back, because we were going to Salt Lake City right after California's Proposition 8 (the same-sex marriage initiative) vote," said Sneegas, director of conference services for the UUA. "People were upset that we were going to a conservative city. There was a belief that Mormon money had helped finance opposition to the bill."

But a funny thing happened on the way to having hard feelings about the host city. As some of the skeptical UUA attendees immersed themselves in the Salt Lake City community, the concerns about the Mormon influence and the city's perceived conservatism disappeared. Salt Lake City wasn't at all what they'd envisioned. Instead, what UUA members found was a community that's open minded, cosmopolitan, (dare we say) liberal, tolerant and accepting of alternative lifestyles.

"When you look at Salt Lake City, what you'll find is a diverse, democratic and progressive city with a lot of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people who care about the environment, public education and social welfare," said Marina Gomberg, director of development and marketing for the Utah Pride Center, which was a partner with UUA during the convention.

The UUA general assembly events were held at the Salt Palace Convention Center, and the agenda was populated with discussions on Darfur and Sudan, HIV/AIDS, immigration reform, Iran and Iraq diplomacy and torture.

While the agenda topics were heady, UUA conference attendees also took some time off to be part of a community service project. The group played host to an evening event called "A Prom for All," where people of all gender identities, expressions and sexual orientations were welcome to attend alone or bring the date they always wanted to but may have been prohibited to in the past.

In addition to the prom, the UUA and its members were able to raise US$25,000, which was donated to the Utah Pride Center.

One of the seven guiding principles of the Unitarian Universalists is "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are part." It was with this principle in mind that Sneegas and her team insisted that host hotels and meeting facilities comply with the UUA's sustainability requirements and host an environmentally friendly meeting.

By working with the host hotels, the conference center and UUA were able to divert 50 percent of the waste created during the event away from landfills by recycling and composting. The UUA showed its support for the local agricultural community by supporting the local growers. The group asked the hotels and the convention center to make sure that at least one-third of the food served was organic and that 50 percent be grown locally. And to cut down on car emissions, attendees were encouraged to take public transportation, walk or ride bikes (which were provided) between the hotels and convention center. This enabled the UUA to save more than $85,000 in transportation costs during the event.

But perhaps the biggest environmental impact that the UUA made on Salt Lake City was the reduction of the carbon footprint. The UUA requires its host hotels to use clean and renewable energy such as solar or wind energy, and the Hilton and Marriott agreed with the request.

The City's Green Side

Hoteliers and convention center managers aren't the only ones in Salt Lake City who embrace green initiatives. Much of the city is into conservation and sustainability, and that is especially apparent in the trendy, young and hip neighborhood of Sugar House, long considered a local hotspot for cool restaurants, bars and nightlife.

Among Sugar House's most popular restaurants is Pago. The menu at Pago is created in collaboration with local growers and artisans and is based on the seasonal availability of fresh fruits and veggies. Pago has also established partnerships with other specialty food and beverage makers, such as Utah Brewers, to serve some the region's best beer and Amano Chocolate, a local confectioner whose sweets find their way into Pago's decadent desserts.

Without question one of the biggest boosts to conventions in the Salt Lake City area is the relaxation of liquor policies. It used to be that in order to buy a drink you had to become a member of wherever you wanted to drink. While the "membership fee" was nominal, usually around $5, it inevitably added to the complexity of having a few cocktails with friends, and it certainly cut down on people who wanted to hang out at multiple bars.

All of that has changed. Beer, wine and mixed drinks can be found throughout the city, even on Sundays (although the locals admit that mixed drinks always seem to be a little watered down).

Not surprisingly, several microbreweries have popped up around the city and are popular with visitors and locals. Among the most popular is the Wasatch Brew Pub & Brewery, which was founded by Milwaukee native Greg Schirf. Two years after his arrival in Utah in 1986, Schirf proposed a bill to the State Legislature that made brew pubs legal in Utah, and he's been the state's leading microbrew master ever since.

In 2000, Schirf and his biggest competitor, the Salt Lake Brewing Company, decided that they were more likely to increase their local market share and compete with national brewers by creating a partnership, and the Utah Brewers Cooperative (known formally as Squatters) was born. Together the companies own five microbreweries, and for those keeping score, yes, Squatters buys all of its ingredients from local growers and the company uses BlueSky wind power to reduce its carbon footprint.

For Schirf and the management team at Squatters, building multimillion-dollar business is serious work; however, the names of the beers made by Utah Brewers Cooperative (especially given the Utah connection) seem to be named with tongue firmly in cheek-First Amendment, Polygamy Porter, Brigham's Root Beer and Evolution.

In thinking about the name Evolution, maybe it's more than just a name on a bottle of beer. Maybe it's the perfect word to describe how Salt Lake City has transformed itself in the past decade. Because, without question, the city has certainly evolved into one of the world's best meeting destinations.