The Future of Mormon Mega-Projects
One of the Europe East area goals is to bring the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints out of obscurity. This is a goal that the church as a whole has as well. Mega-projects can play a vital role in bringing the church out of obscurity in addition to the practical benefit of the project itself. Mitt Romney gave some practical marketing advice in his book Turnaround. He said that if you have 12 roses you don't split them up and put them in different rooms, you put them all together in a single large bouquet to gain attention and create a wow factor. This can be true of mega-projects as well.
Mega-projects have been important to the church for ages. Some may tend to think that they were only a result of President Hinckley's visionary presidency (BYU-Idaho expansion, Conference Center, City Creek, mass construction of temples), but this is not the case. Mega-projects were done before and after President Hinckley's presidency (BYU Jerusalem center and the I'm a Mormon campaign). From this list we can note several interesting aspects about mega-projects. First, they come at an extremely high cost, second, they greatly vary in type but all produce a wow effect that either better the church's brand image or increases excitement and visibility towards the church. The geographical and demographical stresses on the church budget will make it harder for the church to fund mega-projects.
The church will still need to produce mega-projects in the future as they cannot only rely on members alone to bring the church out of obscurity. The recent success of members such as Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, JimmerFredette, Stephenie Myers, Jabari Parker, David Archuleta, and Bryce Harper should not be seen as the norm but a nice surprise that hopefully will repeat itself in the future. True, gospel principles coupled with blessings from the Lord tend to make members successful, but this certainly does not guarantee a high number of global elite's like there are right now.
What does this mean for LDS mega-projects? It means that mega-projects are going to have to be cost-effective either in the short term (low level of investment) or in the long term (high investment, but high level of return). It will be tricky to match church priorities with these levels of constraints. So here is a prediction of what we can expect to see in the future:
1. Less spiritually based mega-projects. Most likely the church will decide not to build a mega building that is used solely for spiritual reasons (like the 240 million USD conference center). These buildings require a high level of investment, significant costs to maintain and do not produce any revenue. Currently the church has built several wonderful buildings and should be able to get by without building any more (Conference center in 2000, Church history library in 2009 for example). This also means a steady but slow building of temples and chapels throughout the world. For the upcoming year the presiding bishopric will approve no exceptions in construction. This means that branches and wards will get what they qualify for but nothing else, no matter the circumstances. The same frugality will most likely be applied when it comes to mega-projects.
2. More (but smaller) revenue based mega-projects. The City-Creek mall is a good example of this. While the church is not likely to invest on this scale (2 billion USD) again, similar projects could appear. Many have asked why the LDS church would spend 2 billion USD building a luxury mall. This is a good question but there is an answer. First it is an investment, meaning that most of the money will be recouped at some point, it is not as if the LDS church just wrote off 2 billion USD. Second, it is an investment to preserve down town Salt Lake. This is a classic "invest in your core" strategy. Temple Square will be and will always be the headquarters of the church (insert Zion in Missouri joke here). The church could not stand by and let Salt Lake turn into Detroit with people fleeing to the suburbs with empty businesses and rising crime rates replacing them. Since the completion of City Creek, investment in down town has increased by other private entities (directly because of city creek). Taking this into consideration, the church got a pretty good deal for its 2 billion USD. The mall also provided the wow effect that mega-projects need to be successful. The project certainly cost more than church developers wanted, but in the long run it will certainly be worth the investment.
What principles does the LDS church need to promote with moderate sized revenue producing mega-projects? I will recommend three with three concurring mega-project proposals: family togetherness, bringing the church out of obscurity, and a continued investment in Salt Lake City. The church is a church for families. Despite efforts of making everybody feel welcome the church (and corresponding gospel principles) is built around the principle of families being together forever. In the busy digital age families spend less time than ever together, which will have negative consequences for church membership down the road in terms of divorce, activity rates and so on. Despite the "Mormon moment" most people do not know much about the church. This will remain true for decades to come. The "I'm a Mormon" campaign is a good start, but it is expensive ad campaign that cannot be sustained forever. Investing in Salt Lake is a good idea. As Salt Lake slowly transforms into a world class city it will bring even more attention to the church. The City Creek Center should be seen as a beginning, not the end of this project. For example Salt Lake City is considering bidding for the Olympics again in 2026. This would not have happened if down town Salt Lake had continued to deteriorate.
Three medium sized mega-projects (in terms of investment) that would bring in revenue and promote the above mentioned principels:
1. BYU-England. I have written a detailed proposal about this project in the past, here will be a brief overview. Needless to say this type of project would be best suited for England due to language and cultural reasons. The future of the church in Europe will be based on the YSA. See Elder Perry's remarks for details. BYU-England would provide LDS youth in Europe with an affordable education (currently there are problems with high tuition rates in the UK) and enable them to socialize with other YSA which despite the creation of YSA centers is limited in many places in Europe. A BYU experience for the YSA in Europe would reduce the demands on BYU in the US, and strengthen the testimonies of thousands in Europe. It would most likely increase the percentage of YSA serving missions and marrying in the temple. This is something that BYU-Idaho's Pathway program simply cannot duplicate (both in terms of quality of education and a social experience). You are probably thinking that this sounds like a huge investment not a medium investment and one that will generate no revenue, this isn't the case.
A BYU-England would not be the typical BYU style large campus university. It would be a European style metropolitan university where university buildings are integrated into the city. This greatly reduces the cost of starting up a university as the majority of infrastructure is already there and is maintained by the city, not the university. The church's philosophy of isolating college kids from the world to provide them with a spiritually safe environment (the only possible reason to choose Rexburg Idaho as a location of one of the church universities) is outdated in a digital world. Spiritual safety is a individual choice to stand in holy places, this choice is needed in Rexburg and Liverpool just the same. A church university, then is about creating real and lasting social networks that are difficult (though possible) to do via Facebook. The university would also be able to offer a quality education that is recognized in Europe (something that Pathway will never be able to do, try to get a job in Russia by telling your employer that you have an online degree from BYU-Idaho). The startup would be made easier by piggy backing off BYU for course content, text books, and even integrating independent study courses as part of the curriculum. This would reduce costs enormously and make the start up manageable.
Tuition payments would be modest and would not cover the operational costs (as is the case with BYU, BYU-Idaho, and BYU-Hawaii). The real revenue would be from the increase in activation rates among YSA and the increase in temple marriages (more children and more real growth for the church). This would represent a significant increase in the number of tithing payers and in total tithing revenue, especially considering the high salaries people have in Europe compared to other places in the world. Despite the enormous amount of resources the church pours into Europe, church growth remains stagnant (for example, 14 temples built or announced, in Europe for only 500,000 members, compared to 8 temples built or announced in Brazil with 1.2 million members). The "I'm a Mormon" campaign in London is a good step in the right direction, but this will provide only short term results. Europe would benefit from a mega-project and BYU-England should be the choice.
2. Waters of Mormon. An indoor Book of Mormon themed water park (think Lazy Laban River, Bountiful tide pool, Baptism splash, and so on). If successful it could be duplicated into a chain of several water parks in the Western US. This would promote family togetherness (special family night discounts, and family ticket pricing). This would be a project doable in terms of investment and revenue as ticket sales would cover the operational costs. A world class water park would attract many which would then introduce them to the Book of Mormon. This would also create a splash in the media as people would wonder "why is the LDS church building a water park?" Just as they wondered "Why is the LDS church spending 2 billion on a luxury mall?" Locations should be in a large city locations with a high percentage of LDS members but also many who are not. Possibilities: Salt Lake, Pheonix/Mesa area, Las Vegas, Boise, Denver, Portland, Calgary.
3. The Grand Nephite. A semi-luxury hotel for Salt Lake City. With the increase in investment and growth in Salt Lake City, it can accommodate another hotel. The hotel would be another Book of Mormon/Aztek themed hotel that would be cheap enough for families to come but also nice enough for business travelers. This project could be problematic as it would be a direct competition for Bill Marriott's hotels, but it would also enable the church to diversify its investment portfolio which currently is over reliant on farm land. If the church really wanted to think big, it could combine the Grand Nephite and the Waters of Mormon into a single large LDS family resort center pattered after the Great Wolf Lodge. Locations in hotter places would obviously have an outdoor water park connected to the hotel.
Church mega-projects have played a significant role in bringing the church out of obscurity (necessary to take the gospel to the whole world). Financial restraints will impact the future of mega-projects, but as this blog post has demonstrated, it certainly will not be the end. I fully expect to see more medium sized mega-projects that will generate revenue. I can't wait to be wowed with what the church thinks up next.