Park City’s decade marked by tragic student deaths, expensive open space deals
This is one in a three-article package examining the defining moments of the past decade in Park City, such as the PCMR lawsuit and arrival of Vail Resorts, and looking at what some residents say may be the headlines in the community at the end of the upcoming decade.
The decade that is ending provided a string of extraordinary moments in Park City, one of them that was 30-plus years in the making and another that came suddenly, and tragically. The community enters the 2020s dramatically changed from the one that entered the 2010s.
Some of the landscape-altering events of the last 10 years, listed in chronological order, include:
A shaken school
September of 2016 seemed to be a typical first full month back to classes in the Park City School District as students started the new school year with the usual anticipation and anxieties.
Over the course of just a few days that month, though, the school, and the wider Park City community, was left shaken by the deaths of two Treasure Mountain Junior High students, both just 13 years old. Ryan Ainsworth and Grant Seaver died after using a synthetic opioid known as U-47700, oftentimes called “Pink” or “Pinky.” The U-47700 was ordered from the dark web, adding another unsettling layer to the case.
The deaths had a shattering impact on Park City as the two teens were mourned. Parents and law enforcement worried other teens could be at risk from the opioid. Even as Parkites consoled one another, the authorities continued to investigate. There was not another death, but the tears continued. The tragedy triggered a broad discussion about drug use by Park City teens and the role of law enforcement in combating abuse. The deaths also led to a series of lawsuits as the families leveled blame on various parties, including the School District and the Park City Police Department.
“My daughter made a comment that, ‘I can’t believe this is happening here.’ I let her know that this can happen anywhere. My hope is that we start paying attention to what’s going on and don’t think that we are immune to it,” Danielle McComb, who had a daughter at Treasure Mountain Junior High at the time, said shortly after the two deaths.
An open space bonanza
Park City officials, open space activists and recreation lovers had long coveted the high-altitude land in Wasatch County known as Bonanza Flat.
The 1,350-acre tract of ground south of Park City and downhill from Guardsman Pass provides spectacular views, habitat for wildlife like moose and elk as well as an environmental buffer between Park City, the Wasatch County cities and the population centers in Salt Lake County. It was under private ownership with significant development potential, likely as a golf-and-ski community, as the decade began.
United Park City Mines, the modern-day successor to Park City’s silver-mining industry, held the land for years. The Talisker corporate family eventually came to control United Park City Mines and the land. A business entity tied to Wells Fargo and a financial firm called Midtown Acquisitions, L.P. took possession of Bonanza Flat in a broad foreclosure case, suddenly providing Park City a long-desired possibility to acquire the land for conservation purposes.
Park City voters in 2016 approved a $25 million ballot measure for the ground without there even being a deal for Bonanza Flat. City Hall and the landowner, though, within months of the successful ballot measure reached a $38 million agreement. The $25 million authorized by Park City voters provided the conservation efforts the bulk of the funds needed, and a regional campaign was launched to cover the remainder. Private individuals, government bodies and others contributed to the cause as the monies were eventually raised.
The $38 million price attached to Bonanza Flat was the most expensive City Hall conservation deal at the time. The land — vast meadows, lakes and hillsides — is seen by some as the grandest of the municipal government’s open space acquisitions, a microcosm of the Wasatch Range in which Park City is situated.
“I have never seen so many different community partners come together to raise such a significant amount of money in such a short amount of time,” Wendy Fisher, the executive director of the not-for-profit Utah Open Lands, said as City Hall completed the acquisition, calling Bonanza Flat the “heart of the Wasatch.”
An art deal
By the middle of 2017, there had already been talks for more than a decade about the future of what was seen as an underutilized swath of Park City, known by then as Bonanza Park and roughly bordered by Bonanza Drive, Kearns Boulevard and Park Avenue.
There had also by then been long-running discussions about the future of the Kimball Art Center and its highly desirable location at the intersection of Main Street and Heber Avenue.
The talks about Bonanza Park effectively stalled as the sides disagreed on a range of planning-related issues. The Kimball Art Center, meanwhile, drew fierce opposition to an expansion concept featuring a modern design by a famed European architect in a commercial district largely defined by a clutch of historic buildings.
It became one of Park City’s most notable Old Town development disputes, pitting preservation activists against those who saw the modern design as something that would accentuate the Main Street streetscape.
The art center leadership opted to sell the property to a developer as frustrations with the City Hall process within the ranks of the organization appeared to grow.
The discussions about Bonanza Park and the Kimball Art Center did not seem related until a 2017 agreement reached by City Hall to acquire the disputed Bonanza Park land for $19.5 million. Park City officials saw the acquisition as an opportunity to develop an arts and culture district anchored by the Kimball Art Center and the Utah headquarters of the Sundance Institute. The district would be an important step toward diversifying the Park City economy and further solidifying the community’s cultural offerings, supporters said.
“This one is anchored in who we are as a community,” Jack Thomas, the Park City mayor at the time, said about the agreement to acquire the land.
As the decade ends, the planning efforts for the arts and culture district are underway. City Hall, the Kimball Art Center and the Sundance Institute are expected to pursue the project in coming years, a timeline that likely extends the efforts well into the next decade.
A hillside treasure
As the decade started, a development controversy centered on a hillside overlooking Old Town was already decades old.
The Sweeney family in the 1980s secured a development approval involving the Treasure land along the route of the Town Lift and nearby parcels. The family in the intervening years developed some of the rights outlined in the overall approval, but the bulk of the project was slated for the hillside itself.
The Sweeney family and a partner spent years in discussions with the Park City Planning Commission, making only limited progress as opponents seized on issues like the traffic Treasure was expected to generate on Old Town streets and what they saw as the sheer size of a development encompassing upward of 1 million square feet on such a visually sensitive hillside.
City Hall and the Treasure partnership ultimately negotiated a conservation deal, something Park City leaders and the opposition to the development long desired but also something that seemed highly unlikely as the talks about the project wore on.
It was in late 2017 that a breakthrough suddenly seemed possible involving a conservation deal of some sort. City Hall and the Treasure partnership considered several options before reaching a $64 million agreement for the municipal government to acquire the land for conservation purposes and extinguish the development rights,
The deal, by a wide margin the most expensive conservation agreement in the history of City Hall’s open space program, hinged on a ballot measure priced at $48 million that would provide most of the funds needed. Voters in November of 2018 overwhelmingly approved the funding, and City Hall finalized the acquisition the following March.
“Treasure Hill, certainly something that has been a 32-year odyssey that’s caused a lot of strain. It’s been divisive in this community, and it’s really nice to put it past us,” Mayor Andy Beerman said shortly after voters approved the ballot measure.
The Treasure acquisition ended a development dispute in the final year of the decade, decades after the dispute started.
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Park City officials are expected to present information about upcoming work on the Treasure acreage designed to guard against a wildfire, as well as a series of other City Hall projects and programs, at an open house that is scheduled next week.