Provo vying for position as Utah’s ‘startup capital’

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Ari Davis
One day Provo’s skyline may be filled with businesses as industries move to the Utah Valley.

Utah is well-positioned to be home to companies ranging from startups to established brands from Salt Lake to Payson.

While Provo is home to several technology headquarters, including Qualtrics, Vivint and Insidesales.com, many others are relocating to Lehi as Provo’s commercial real estate space gets filled.

“These people get it,” said Scott Bowles, Provo City’s economic development coordinator, referring to BYU students. “They are learning that in the university’s motto of “The World is Our Campus,” Provo is included in that world.”

But Provo is also dealing with limited space, according to Bowles, and some are happy to see businesses outgrow and relocate. When Ancestry announced it was moving to Lehi, Provo Mayor John Curtis sent a congratulatory letter to the company while also thanking them for residing in Provo.

“We have people calling us all the time asking if we have room to rent. We continue to tell them no and refer them to Lehi,” Bowles said.

Provo is vying for the position of startup capital of Utah. In August, StartFest was held in Provo. StartFest is a convention centered on fostering the business startup mentality. Several notable speakers spoke on the current status of Utah, including Gov. Gary Herbert.

Many cities are seeing the such benefit of programs and events in Provo. “A rising tide raises all ships. If Provo does better, we all do better,” said Doug Meldrum, an economic development director who works to bring companies and resources to Lehi.

Provo has also seen a change in business growth in the past few years. Bowles attributes Provo’s business, public transportation and culture success to Curtis.

“Mayor Curtis’s vision and leadership is something Provo has never seen before,” Bowles said. “Students and residents of BYU don’t fully know the effects that things happening today will shape for the next 10 years.”

Meldrum said Provo and Lehi work together to ensure companies stay in Utah. “We both try to attract and retain companies in the area,” Meldrum said. “It would be nice to have an incubator program like Provo. Instead, we have ground to fill.”

WordPerfect and Novell were some of the first companies to establish the precedent of Utah being a technology center.

“In the past, when you mentioned Utah to people outside the state, they’d picture red rocks and polygamy,” Bowles said. “They are now realizing that there’s a culture where people are natural salespeople, there are things to do outside and it’s affordable to live here.”

Many of the companies Bowles interacts with are located anywhere from Payson to Eagle Mountain. “We don’t think of it as losing to Lehi,” Bowles said. “We think we’re mutually benefiting each other.”

When a company has outgrown its area, Bowles coordinates with his counterpart in Lehi to help with the company’s transition.

Lehi has seen much growth over the past 15 years. The city population is about to reach over 55,000 residents. Meldrum said Lehi has only built on a third of the land that is available to develop. “We haven’t slowed down,” Meldrum said.

Residential zoning has also been a priority when building technology companies. Meldrum said Lehi sees around 41 new houses a month. “We realize that building Lehi is like a three-legged stool. We need to provide jobs, places to live and places to shop,” Meldrum said.

Many restaurants and shops have been built around the new office buildings. But the success of Provo and Lehi cannot be completely attributed to the two cities alone.

“You have to zoom out,” said Silicon Slopes director Jordan Burke. Silicon Slopes is a non-profit organization devoted to promoting Utah technology companies.

According to Burke, the Department of Workforce Services reported that in 2014, $954 million dollars of investment capital was raised by Utah companies.

“Utah residents should be asking themselves, ‘How does this benefit us?'” Burke said. “Professionals in Utah can use these opportunities to improve their skills and step up their income.”

Utah can also provide a diverse workforce. “We have a highly educated and young work force here,” Burke said, adding that outside companies see this as a strong quality to utilize.

Burke also said many companies have set up satellite companies in the area. “Goldman Sachs’ fourth largest office is located in Salt Lake City,” he said.

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