Park City mayor, delivering important address, likens coronavirus battle to rebuilding after Great Fire of 1898
State of the City speech given at an important time with community attempting to recover from the pandemic
Park City Mayor Andy Beerman on Tuesday night looked back, far back, in the community’s history as he spoke of the challenges of today.
In delivering the annual State of the City address, the mayor told the story of a destructive 1898 fire that spread through much of what was Park City of that era. The community at the time, driven by the silver-mining industry, was little more than the neighborhood that eventually became Old Town and the various mining buildings in the surrounding mountains.
Beerman, delivering the address at a largely empty Santy Auditorium at the Park City Library as City Hall continues efforts to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, spoke of the fire starting at the top of Main Street. The buildings were wooden-framed structures that were especially susceptible to the flames. He said the shopkeepers were desperate as they pulled furniture and other goods onto the street, something, the mayor said, that allowed the fire to jump to the other side. There were 1,500 people who were left homeless and more than 100 businesses were devastated, Beerman said, explaining that the fire “wiped out the entire business district and surrounding homes.”
“It was so severe and with silver prices falling there was real fear that Park City might not rebuild,” Beerman said.
Still, businesses reopened within days of the blaze and new buildings appeared within weeks, he said. The people of Park City then, though, did not reconsider the weaknesses as they rebuilt using wood, he said, explaining there were destructive fires later.
“We can learn from this and hopefully do better,” Beerman said.
The retelling of the history of what came to be known in the ensuing decades as the Great Fire of 1898 was a stark contrast to a typical State of the City address. The speech usually offers an opportunity for leaders to enthusiastically outline the successes of the previous year and talk of the excitement for the coming 12 months.
The speech on Tuesday, though, was delivered at a difficult moment in the community as it continues the efforts to curb the sickness and reignite the economy. He did not announce new programs or initiatives and instead addressed the impact of the coronavirus.
The mayor’s address in 2020 was delivered shortly before the coronavirus struck the Park City area, forcing the early end of the 2019-2020 ski season. Within weeks of last year’s address, businesses across a wide swath of the economy temporarily shuttered, unemployment soared and the health crisis became dire before the community in the summer started a comeback.
“We took a big hit, but businesses and workers have adapted and most are still standing,” he said. “The reason I compare this to the Great Fire is because COVID laid us bare in a different way. It burned down our social norms and exposed our unsteady foundations. COVID and the abrupt halt of our economy showed us that we’re only as strong as our most vulnerable populations. Without our service workers our economy cannot function. But even pre-pandemic many were struggling. We may aspire to be a complete community but we discovered safety nets do not exist for all of us.”
The mayor said 2020 was a year of hardship, tragedy and frustration. The community’s resilience was tested, he said.
“Just one year ago we were here in the Santy. We were optimistic and ready to charge forward with Vision 2020. We were eager to continue our work on priorities like traffic, climate, equity and affordability. There was a strong feeling of urgency and a belief we needed to slow down growth and focus on sustainable tourism,” he said. “But the arrival of COVID was not the remedy we had in mind. When we said sustainable, no one meant a full stop. The collapse of tourism might have been overstated, but it sure felt like it for a few months.”
But he also said the health crisis highlighted the willingness of Parkites to help others. He honored the many people who have assisted the community during the pandemic. He highlighted teachers, health care workers, public safety personnel, bus drivers and clerks at grocery stores.
“We were reminded that Parkites can be kind, compassionate and generous. And we discovered there are superheroes living amongst us,” he said.
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Park City officials are preparing to take what is considered to be an important step in protecting the Treasure land from wildfires. City Hall in early June requested proposals from firms interested in the work.