July 7, 2015

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Farm Town to Boom Town

How Draper Changed its Approach to Development

By Heather Beers

July 7, 2015

Difficult. Inflexible. Downright frustrating. You name it, Draper City had been called it. The once sleepy farm town in Salt Lake Valley’s southeast corner was becoming fertile ground for growth, but its resistance to change meant development was going nowhere—and fast.

“About seven-plus years ago, we had the reputation for being the most difficult to work with—I don’t think there was anybody who had a worse reputation,” says Draper Mayor Troy Walker. In every facet of development, from prolonged delays and slow approvals to less-than-optimal customer service, Walker says Draper was failing.

At the time, Walker had just been elected to Draper City Council, along with Alan Summerhays and Bill Rappleye. They noticed there were some factions in the council that wanted to protect the status quo and keep Draper small, “but when we got elected, we realized growth was coming whether Draper wanted it or not, and we wanted smart growth,” says Walker.

To attract quality retailers and businesses, the city council members knew it would require significant changes. They knew those changes wouldn’t happen overnight, but they had a vision—a way to help Draper prepare for growth and create a more business friendly community. Here, Walker shares the lessons the city learned along the path to major improvements.

A New Philosophy

The city started by implementing new policies and procedures, setting up a performance standard and holding the team accountable. “Those who didn’t want to meet the standard eventually chose other employment and moved on, but a lot of the same people are still here and are part of our culture of customer service,” says Walker.

The city also changed its philosophy to one that focused more on serving the community and its residents. “Our job as government is to serve the public, not the other way around,” Walker says. “We work for them. We have a duty to make sure the codes, safety and health of the whole community are met, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t be easy to work with, pleasant to work with.”

From city management to community and economic development, Walker says the team that is now in place has made huge strides. “We’ve got an excellent staff—our senior team—we have really good people who want to make this a nice place to be,” he says. “Our people have worked for both the government and private sector. They know what it’s like to be on both sides of the fence. They know what customer service means for developers, while still protecting the interests of the city. We’ve hired people who are willing to do the job that way.”

On the Right Track

With an improved culture and dedicated team, Walker, who is also on the board of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (EDCU), says the city focused on seeking out a strong mix of high-quality businesses and employers. Anyone driving through Draper’s retail districts can see the results. Dining, shopping and entertainment options can be found in well-appointed centers, along with a mix of local companies, small businesses and large national chains.

As for employers, the roster is impressive from 1-800-CONTACTS and eBay to Storagecraft, Edwards Lifesciences and the city’s latest big fish, EMC, a Fortune 200 company specializing in cloud computing and big data that plans to bring 1,400 new jobs to the area.

In addition, other attractions, such as the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, were also persuaded to drop anchor in Draper by city officials.

Walker says it’s not just Draper’s emphasis on economic development, city planning and customer service that has made a difference, but the city is also taking the initiative on things like mass transit. The city boasts three Utah Transit Authority Trax stations that connect to the heart of downtown. And when Bluffdale rejected the opportunity to have a FrontRunner station, Draper lobbied long and hard for it.

Walker says even though these efforts met with some resistance, “we stood our ground, and now it benefits the community. EMC would not be going where they’re going if they weren’t near a FrontRunner stop. They provide eco passes to employees; they encourage mass transit use. It was important to them.”

Major Improvements

That vision for Draper that Walker and his colleagues initiated nearly 10 years ago? It’s coming to fruition. Draper has not only grown significantly, but it’s managed the growth well. The city has been rated the No. 1 city in which to do business and it received the top grade, an A-, from a National Association of Industrial and Office Properties and University of Utah development review study in 2014. Earlier this year, The New Yorker profiled Draper’s shift from small town to thriving economic leader in an article titled “How Utah Became the Next Silicon Valley.”

For a city once known for its poor reputation, Walker admits it’s good to hear people are now saying nice things about Draper. But even more than the accolades, Walker is proud to be a part of a town that has come together to treasure its past while keeping an eye on its future. 

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