For decades, the Sugar House Chamber of Commerce paid the cost of setting up the iconic Santa House on the Monument Plaza at Christmastime and decorating it with lights and garlands of greenery. Now, the Chamber’s membership has dwindled to less than half, and its income is insufficient to support large public events such as Santa’s arrival or the expense of holiday decorations.
Besides the now privately-owned Santa Shack, the only other holiday decorations in downtown Sugar House will be those put up by area businesses.
When Sugar House merchants first invited the public to “See Santa in Sugar House,” it was a novel contrast to the usual department-store Santa, whose role was to boost the sale of holiday gifts and children’s toys.
“I remember it so well, right there on the Monument island. Mr. Santa Claus was always there, then later Mrs. Santa joined him in a candy-cane striped gazebo. The kids would line up forever to talk to Santa and get a candy cane from him. It was the constant in our Christmas tradition. I think the memory of that experience is so vivid because they always had the best Santas, and he took time with the children,” said Marie Reiter, 83. “[It was] a tradition that really meant something to the children and parents of Sugar House.”
In 2013, plans were made for remodeling the Monument Plaza to accommodate a variety of public activities. When construction began, a new, larger version of the Santa House was relocated to Sugarmont Plaza at 2234 S Highland Drive, the site of the old Deseret Industries building. This is the sixth year that Santa’s house has appeared at that location. About 750 families visited Santa Claus there in 2018, some coming from as far as Tooele and Park City.
In 2015, Salt Lake City Public Services delayed a return to the main plaza while they considered challenges posed by the size of the new Santa Shack and the current configuration of the Monument Plaza. Protecting the surface of the plaza required a crane and a forklift to set the four-ton cottage into position, a cost that neither private sources nor the Chamber could afford. For the past two years, Ascent Construction donated this service, but now they no longer work in the area.
Monique Higginson is the treasurer of the Sugar House Chamber. She said that recent commercial development has resulted in more national businesses in Sugar House. There are fewer small- and middle-sized local concerns to provide the funding and human resources to support traditional Chamber activities.
“Large businesses show little interest in investing in the community. They are not bound to the community in the same way as small businesses,” Higginson said. “It’s perplexing, since they benefit the most from traffic to their stores, restaurants and pubs in downtown Sugar House.”
Sugar House is one of six Chambers along the East Bench that are part of the Wasatch Business Series (WBS), including the City of Holladay, South Salt Lake City, and Murray City. But Sugar House has always been “a city within a city.” Benjamin Sessions, president of the Chamber, said that Sugar House is the only WBS member that is not subsidized by its municipal parent and does not get direct funding from its city.
Another explanation for the lack of funding is that while national chains have replaced some locally-owned stores, ownership of the land may not have changed. In SLC’s Central Business District, cultural events and promotions are funded by the Downtown Alliance, with 40% of their $2.5 million budget coming from a special tax assessment on commercial properties. An effort to organize a similar Sugar House Alliance several years ago was not successful.
These questions remain: Shouldn’t the large regional and national businesses in the SHBD support the community that supports them? Where will the Santa Shack go at the end of this holiday season, when it must be removed from the Sugarmont Plaza? After 75 years, will Sugar House still have a place for Santa’s House?