Oakley Diner expected to serve as a catalyst for change

Kamas Valley native Steve Smith owns around 10 acres near the city center that he wants to improve

Kamas Valley native Steve Smith found success in the Utah tech industry. Now, he wants to help revive Oakley’s city center and his first major project is an iconic diner.
Courtesy of Steve Smith

Ken’s Kash. Dutch’s Service Station. The Oakley Diner. 

Names matter. They create identity, provide a sense of connection and symbolize the meaning behind a place. Born and raised in the Kamas Valley, Steve Smith recognizes the power monikers have — especially on the East Side. 

While some might try to ignore that history, he wants to see it revered as imminent growth poses a threat to the idyllic town.

Smith grew up in Marion. He spent his youth on a dairy farm and attended South Summit High School. He still remembers the days when people primarily lived and worked in the rural parts of Summit County.

Today, it’s more of a bedroom community where ranches have been split up and development is coming in from the west.

It’s been a challenge for Oakley officials, who have struggled to revive the diminishing city center since the Oakley Rodeo moved to its current location on S.R. 32. But now, the timing appears right.

And they believe Smith is the man who can make it happen.

Smith doesn’t consider himself to be a typical developer. Instead, he regards himself as more of a facilitator. He’s not looking to make a profit and leave; he’s a local and he’s willing to take the time to make sure it’s done right in the long run. Smith lives in Oakley, and he loves it so much that he doesn’t even want to drive to Kamas.

After graduating from the University of Utah with a degree in finance, Smith briefly moved out of the area in the 1980s to work for computer equipment manufacturer Megahertz. He stayed on through the mid-1990s until around the time the company was acquired by U.S. Robotics.

The experience introduced Smith to the emerging world of  Silicon Slopes and the state’s growing tech industry.

He went on to found Finicity, a tech company that provides financial data and insights, in 2000. The company was sold to Mastercard for $825 million in 2020. The same year, Smith and his wife Jana went on to create the Stena Foundation. The nonprofit strives to improve financial inclusion and access to education for people, families and communities.

The couple moved back to the Kamas Valley around 2006 after purchasing some land near Weber Canyon. Oakley City officials and the Planning Commission at about the same time started becoming serious about developing a master plan for the city center. It was adopted in 2009 as a way to help drive meaningful development, but Mayor Zane Woolstenhulme said it was never prioritized because of the recession.

Woolstenhulme was elected to his post in 2019 after serving on the Planning Commission, at about the same time Smith began acquiring several properties in and around the city center. Smith currently owns around 10 acres near the intersections of S.R. 32, Center Street and Weber Canyon Road. He is the majority landholder in the area and he owns the buildings that house Dutch’s, Ken’s Kash, the post office and more. 

“Oakley, it doesn’t have a lot of commerce in it. It has a little gas station, it has a little grocery store, it has the Polar King that’s open seasonally but that’s pretty much it. And … those haven’t really kept pace with the growth of Oakley and the area,” he said. 

The need for more amenities inspired Smith. He purchased the historic former Road Island Diner, which closed its doors during the summer of 2021, intending to continue its legacy. Smith renamed the iconic train car-style establishment the Oakley Diner with the hope of turning it into a destination that draws people into the city center.

He’s been working on the eatery for nearly two years. It’s finally expected to open later this month, after the scheduled grand opening in July was delayed. Smith wants to see it become as successful as Ruth’s Diner in Emigration Canyon, a spot known for its beautiful location, great food and wonderful atmosphere. 

The history of the dining car, which was manufactured in 1939, brought to Oakley by businessman Keith Walker in 2007 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, embodies what Smith is aspiring to do in Oakley. 

“Having grown up there, I have deep respect for the lifestyle of a mountain valley community,” he said. “The diner came to Oakley … but it represents a part of Americana that we can revere. Everyone feels something when they walk into a diner.”

Woolstenhulme believes the Oakley Diner will serve as a catalyst for other projects. He said the center of town already looks better.

Oakley City officials hope a conceptual master plan of the city center, which was adopted in 2009, will help drive development in a meaningful way. But some residents are concerned about the potential growth.
Toria Barnhart/Park Record

Smith doesn’t want to change the rodeo, ranching and farming heritage people feel when they’re in Oakley. But he emphasized a need to grow sustainably while also investing in the long term. Ken’s Kash would remain a small-town grocery store, but Smith said there are opportunities for it to expand into a market that would better serve residents. 

Woolstenhulme agreed. He indicated many services in Oakley have outgrown themselves while officials have mostly been dependent on interested parties approaching them about undeveloped land. He offered support for Smith’s plans, saying “Now is the time.”

City officials have been collaborating with Smith on the formal development agreement for the city center, which is expected to be a multi-year, multi-phase approach. He plans to focus on improving core services over the next three years, which includes work on the diner, Ken’s Kash, Dutch’s and the post office.

Some East Side residents have expressed concerns about Smith and overall development in Oakley, but Woolstenhulme said there’s “by and large support” for the master plan and related projects.

“A community is either growing or dying. And it’s ideal if we can have business growth to support the growth in the number of residents and homes. There’s always this conversation about the chicken or the egg: which comes first,” Woolstenhulme said.

“Steve is coming here with an interest to put the business piece of it together, maybe even ahead of that development curve, so that the services are there when that happens. With all the traffic we get up the canyon these days, there are probably more homes up Weber Canyon than there are in Oakley City — it just makes a lot of sense, the timing of all of it.”

In the meantime, Smith hopes residents will give the Oakley Diner a try when it opens. He recommends the cinnamon swirl brioche french toast. 

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