Metro Leadership Visit

Last week, a delegation of 60 business and community leaders from the Charleston region spent three days exploring the Salt Lake City region. What can a port city on the Atlantic hope to learn from a state capital in the Rocky Mountains? It turns out we have a lot in common.
The Charleston region and Salt Lake City region are both:

  • Constrained by geography – their Wasatch Front mountain range is our Atlantic Ocean, expansion in both regions is primarily in a linear corridor.
  • Popular and fast growing – we’re both attracting visitors and adding population at a steady rate; birth rates are a bigger driver of population for the Salt Lake region.
  • Dealing with workforce challenges – despite our respective population growth rates, both regions are struggling to meet employers’ talent demands, particularly in the tech sector.
  • Facing serious housing issues – shortage of new supply in the face of consistent high demand has led to rapid escalation in rents and home price in both markets.
  • Impacted by climate change – where we face increased flooding risk due to climate change, Salt Lake is dealing with serious air quality and water supply issues.
  • Pride of place – above all, Charleston and Salt Lake share an abiding civic pride in the natural beauty and unique character of our places.

Much of the agenda focused on planning for and executing a transit-based regional mobility strategy. The Salt Lake region is home to roughly 1.2 million people, not much larger than the tri-county Charleston region. But their robust, multimodal transit system outshines those of regions triple their size.

The Utah Transit Authority moves 44.2 million riders annually using an interconnected network of buses, light rail, bus rapid transit, commuter rail and vanpools. That’s enough trips to really make a dent in car traffic. And their culture of transit ridership is not a generations-old tradition; the region’s first large scale transit line opened in 1999.

With Lowcountry Rapid Transit, the Charleston Region’s first large-scale mass transit line, in the works and scheduled for a 2025 opening, we can go to school off their successful 20-year history of system expansion and utilization.

Here are some key success ingredients we gathered:

  • Focus on prospective riders – build a system for the people who want or need mobility choices, not for the folks who’ll never give up their car.
  • Engage opposition early – don’t block detractors out of the planning process, pull them in. Engaging opposition can help spread the reality that transit is also good for drivers.
  • Find ways to make it free for riders – all transit trips have costs; there is no such thing as a free ride. But the UTA has worked tirelessly to maximize federal dollars and expand partnerships with universities and businesses to make transit fare free for riders, particularly on new lines.
  • Proactively promote Transit Oriented Development (TOD) – early in its system development, the region had a “build it and they will come” mentality. As they’ve matured, planning for development has become a bigger part of the strategy. Locating workplaces, amenities and housing immediately adjacent to transit stops helps remove the first mile/last mile barrier to ridership.

We went expecting to learn about promoting transit and were not disappointed. But the biggest unexpected take-away from the visit to Salt Lake has to be the power of cooperation. Through presentation Q&A and side conversations with dozens of community leaders, it was abundantly clear that folks in the Salt Lake region don’t just get along, they genuinely like working together. We’re talking transit agency and state DOT, entrepreneur hub and university, business group and planning organization, state legislature and, well, anyone… they all say nice things about each other.

Perhaps it’s because 85% of the state of Utah’s population lives within 40 miles of downtown Salt Lake and the nearest large urban areas are all 6+ hours’ drive. Or maybe it’s the pioneer legacy and ongoing cultural influence of the Mormon church. It could be their 22 year history with a public input-driven, values-based regional growth strategy championed by Envision Utah.

Whatever the reason, we were struck by how far a region can go when they’re actually working together and headed in same direction. The transit system’s success was just one example of this collective spirit.

For that reason, the biggest take-away from our visit to Salt Lake City might be working to improve our working relationships region-wide. Sure, civility generally rules interactions across the Charleston region, but how often are we actually singing from the same sheet of music? 

The One Region global competitiveness strategy offers a terrific rallying point for deeper collaboration. The four core values that form its foundation – a strong, resilient economy; opportunities for all residents to live, learn and earn; balancing growth with nurturing our unique character; and being a connected community – were defined thanks to input from a broad array of regional stakeholders.

If you’re hungry for one thing to do this week to help the Charleston region realize its collaborative potential the way Salt Lake City has, go familiarize (or re-familiarize) yourself with One Region and think of a way your organization can advance our shared core values.

Read more about the 2019 Metro Leadership Visit to Salt Lake City in these blog posts:

Day 1 – Adventures in Salt Lake
Day 2 – Adventures in Salt Lake Build and Inspire Relationships

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Government Relations

Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce Flooding Principles Statement