Building, housing, politics | ParkRecord.com

Building, housing, politics

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

Twelve months ago, who would have predicted a visit by a presidential candidate would have created more buzz in Park City than the local politicians, who actually competed in an election in 2007?

And did anyone in Park City really expect that the construction industry could continue its blistering pace of 2006?

Those are among the reasons why 2007 in Park City was an unexpectedly newsworthy year, with Parkites continuing to grumble about traffic and growth even as they enjoy a humming economy and a popular local government.

Following are what The Park Record deems the five most important news items in Park City in 2007.

5. A healthy building

It’s been decades since Miners Hospital served the medical needs of the sick silver miners, many suffering terrible lung conditions from their time breathing the underground air.

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It was shuttered in the 1950s, according to research by the Park City Library and Education Center, and since then there has not been a hospital in the city, leaving local clinics and hospitals in Heber and Salt Lake City as the top medical options for Partkites.

But in late April, in an expansive field at Quinn’s Junction, doctors, health care administrators, City Hall officials and regular Parkites gathered to celebrate the start of construction of a hospital.

Utah giant Intermountain Healthcare sees Park City and surrounding Summit County, with their continuing growth, as a viable market for a hospital and agreed to build a facility in the city.

Through the second half of the year, drivers watched as the construction crews slowly put up the building’s skeleton, and IHC eventually wants to build 450,000 square feet between the hospital and medical offices.

An official with the company has said he hopes the hospital opens in 2009.

"It’s something that was needed. With the growing population, it’s going to boom," physician Joe Ferriter said at the ceremony.

The groundbreaking came several years after Parkites started a push to build a hospital, arguing that the county’s population, estimated at about 35,000, warranted one. The supporters said many conditions and injuries could be treated locally instead of someone being sent elsewhere.

The first phase of the hospital will hold 26 beds, with 85 envisioned someday, and services planned include general surgery, orthopedic surgery, internal medicine and obstetrics and gynecology.

Becky Kearns, a hospital supporter, said at the groundbreaking Parkites will be more assured of their health once it opens.

"Comfort to know that, for any reason, if something is needed, it’s here," she said.

4. Stumped in Park City

The crowd gathered early at Kimball Junction on Aug. 5, perhaps up to 1,000 people in a nondescript parking lot, officials estimated.

12:30 p.m. that day, a Sunday, the Parkites and people from other parts of the state were feverish: their favorite presidential candidate had just arrived.

Barack Obama, the Illinois senator and a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the White House, held a rollicking rally unprecedented in Park City’s modern era. And the crowd went nuts, interrupting him numerous times with applause, cramming its way toward him for autographs and pictures and making sure youngsters understood the significance of his words.

"The reason you’re here today, the reason people are coming out all across the country, is not just because you want to be against something. It’s because you want to be for something," Obama said during his 20-minute speech, which touched on the Iraqi war, the environment and international relations, among other topics.

Obama’s appearance, which coincided with a fundraiser, was the political highlight of the year, but other presidential campaigns were interested in the Park City area. It is the wealthiest place in Utah, and there are rich political activists for both major parties in the area, making a visit to Park City a potentially lucrative stop for a candidate.

Republican Mitt Romney, who has a house in Park City, occasionally visited to raise money, and he remains a local favorite, having led the successful 2002 Winter Olympics.

Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, sent her husband, the former president, to the area on a fundraising trip. It was at least the third time Bill Clinton has visited Park City in the last decade, including two ski vacations while he held office.

Rudy Giuliani, another Republican, visited Park City in August, making a money-seeking stop at a house in Park Meadows. His handlers shuttled him into the gated driveway, and he motored past a small group of reporters as he left, not stopping to talk about his campaign.

People leaving the Giuliani fundraiser, though, said the former mayor of New York City was impressive as he spoke.

"You just turn to him. He’s a leader. He inspires," said Margaux Kelleher, who lives in New Jersey and owns a home in Promontory, as she left the event, having donated $1,000 to the Giuliani campaign.

3. Four more years

Park City voters seem happy with City Hall, and on Election Day incumbent Park City Councilors were happy with voters.

The Parkites who cast ballots returned incumbent Candy Erickson to the City Council to serve a third four-year term, and Joe Kernan won re-election to a second term. Rounding out the winning ballot was Liza Simpson, an activist from Old Town who proved popular with the voters.

The campaign was a mild-mannered affair, with the candidates generally sticking to platforms that stressed well-known Park City issues like growth and traffic. Candidate debates and forums lacked sizzle, with the hopefuls outlining broad opinions and the candidates rarely challenging each other on key issues.

"I think I have name recognition. People know me. I’ve been here a long time," Erickson said after her first-place finish.

Seven people ran for the three seats on the ballot, not enough to make the campaign overly competitive, but the candidates were seen stumping in the neighborhoods, campaign signs were posted outside of many houses and voters had to drop one person in a primary election.

There was some jockeying between the September primary and Election Day in November, with the sharp-speaking Dennis Wong finishing unexpectedly well in September but then dropping off in November.

Simpson takes office in January. She served on the city panel that helps guide recreation programs, and she is a well-known figure in other circles. She ran a campaign heavy on traditional Park City issues.

Meanwhile, Parkites also approved a $15 million ballot measure to upgrade pedestrian and bicycling routes in the city, a decision that drew some attention from the City Council campaign.

City Hall put the decision to voters after realizing there was not enough money in the government’s coffers to make the upgrades quickly. With the $15 million, the work can be done on a condensed schedule.

After voters approved the money, the City Council seated a committee to consider how the funds should be spent. It is likely that some will be put toward Kearns Boulevard and Bonanza Drive, streets that many Parkites say are unsafe to cross. Pedestrian-bicyclist tunnels might be constructed underneath the two busy thoroughfares.

2. Work force needs housing

Not many local soccer referees, grade-school teachers or middle-level not-for-profit employees go house hunting for slopeside properties.

But in early December they joined others with similarly paying jobs at a forum at Silver Star, an upscale project on the slopes of Park City Mountain Resort.

They gathered to learn more about the developer’s offering of a few ski-in, ski-out units priced for Park City’s work force, and some of them put their names into a random selection for the right to buy one of the income-restricted units.

The developer will pick the people early in 2008, and the Silver Star units are being touted as being among the nicest work force housing ever built in Park City.

"It’s indicative of the compelling need we have in this community for affordable housing," the lead developer, Rory Murphy, said. "People want to live here that work here. They want the opportunity to own a home, to own a title on a residential unit. That is clearly the case."

The Silver Star units received lots of publicity toward the end of 2007, but the year saw other movement toward work force housing, an issue that has challenged City Hall and businesses for years.

The supporters say it is preferred that people who work in Park City are able to afford to live in the city, which, with its resort-driven real estate prices, is the most expensive market in Utah.

City Hall sees itself as being among the chief supporters of the theory, and the local government spent 2007 planning projects, notably one at Snow Creek.

In Old Town, meanwhile, the Empire Pass developers want to build on Marsac Avenue, and Habitat for Humanity is mulling options for a small project on the same street.

And at Quinn’s Junction, there is talk about a significant number of work force units as part of a broader development.

None of the decisions were finalized in 2007, but the efforts, especially those by City Hall, are notable as the local officials try to fulfill a pledge to the work force.

Neighborhood opposition to the Snow Creek site started months ago, with a man who lives in Upstate New York and has a place in Park City ripping the idea in a letter to Mayor Dana Williams and the City Council.

"It’s obviously someone who doesn’t know our history, our culture, our demographics," the mayor said, adding, "I found the letter, I guess, frustrating and somewhat demeaning to the Park City community as a whole."

A backhoe bonanza

The $173.3 million Park City’s bustling construction sector rang up in 2006, the all-time record at that point, is chump change compared to what builders put up in 2007.

Try $200 million-plus for the new record, and that was with another month left in the year.

The construction industry is booming as the housing market in Park City continues to streak, with sales of luxury ski getaways and historic Old Town houses strong.

Through the end of November, the value of permit-authorized construction in 2007 was $235.5 million, up almost 36 percent from the year-end total in 2006.

The final figures will not be tallied until early January, but the industry was not expected to tack on significant numbers in December.

Big-dollar projects pushed up the numbers, with the Sky Lodge in Old Town, Silver Star at Park City Mountain Resort, hotels at Deer Valley and the hospital at Quinn’s Junction being built in 2007.

Elsewhere, construction in Old Town was solid, and crews were seen dotting the other neighborhoods.

Estimates put the market value of the construction at three times the Building Department’s permit figure.

"We’re numb," Chief Building Official Ron Ivie said in October, just after the record fell.

Insiders say Park City is an attractive place to move or to buy a vacation property. It is one of America’s top ski destinations, the city is easy to get to from Salt Lake City and its international airport, and houses and condominiums are less expensive than they are in other mountain resorts, the city’s real estate industry boasts.

The combination has brought lots of buyers, with the median price on real estate transactions sitting at just less than $1 million through the first three quarters of 2007, up about one-third from the same period the year before, according to the Park City Board of Realtors.

"New construction is definitely king. It’s selling better than previously-lived-in houses," Matt Green, the president of the Park City Board of Realtors, said in October.

And the construction industry cuts a wide berth through Park City, with other business sectors, like lunchtime restaurants, seeing solid numbers from the busy construction crews.

At Tommy’s Pizza Joint, a Snow Creek restaurant popular with construction workers, Dawn Wolfe said in October the crews accounted for three out of every four lunch-rush customers.

"It’s huge. We get a lot of them. We get a lot of people in here," she said, adding, "Right now, they’re looking for something fast — ‘let’s get out of here.’"