Evolution, elevated

J'Nel Wright

Park City industries aim to adapt amid changes

“What do you think of when you hear Park City?”

When asked about Park City, almost any random visitor on the street will probably mention two things: skiing and the Sundance Film Festival. A handful of astute tourists can score bonus points for mentioning the 2002 Winter Olympics, but Park City’s identity is largely defined by its tourism industry and its arts and culture offerings. 

But along with the community itself, the tourist and arts and culture industries face challenges exacerbated by rapid population growth, environmental concerns, housing shortages and, over the last two years, an unpredictable pandemic. 

Both industries must adapt to move forward. But how can they prepare for a changing environment and growing community without losing connection with the residents who love and support them?   

Based on Vision 2020 rapid poll results conducted by City Hall, 82% of respondents felt that tourism is essential to Park City’s local economy. But almost half (48%) felt that the balance of tourism in Park City was “already out of kilter,” and 33% felt that Park City was already suffering irrevocable damage from over-tourism.

But with world-class skiing, movie stars and a 50-plus-year-old arts festival firmly entrenched in Park City’s identity, the economic challenges Parkites face are worth solving. 

Since 1976, the Kimball Arts Center has been a cornerstone for a robust Park City arts community. As an ally of the Sundance Institute, KAC’s textured visual arts culture and the Sundance Institute’s creative independent film work carries a starring role in Park City’s economy. 

The Kimball Arts Festival, held annually, is consistently recognized as one of the top festivals in the U.S. for artist’s sales. In 2019, KAC reported the three-day event generated nearly $26.4 million for the local economy, and accounted for more than $1.2 million in artist sales.  

That same year, the pre-pandemic Sundance Film Festival generated over $18.6 million in state and local tax revenue, according to a report commissioned by the Sundance Institute; it supported over 3,000 jobs, which produced $94 million in Utah wages. And Park City played host to more than 122,000 guests from 48 states and 35 foreign countries. To paint a broader picture, the Sundance Film Festival hauled in a five-year cumulative total of $681.5 million, with more than $66.7 million in state and local tax revenue. 

Both organizations hosted two of the most anticipated in-person events in town. That is, until they weren’t. The 2020 Park City Kimball Arts Festival was canceled, while the 2021 and 2022 editions of the Sundance Film Festival were held online. 

“COVID forced a lot of nonprofits to think about the issues surrounding our sustainability. It’s forced us to slow down, be more mission-specific, and really look at our priorities,” said Aldy Milliken, executive director of the Kimball Arts Center. “We need to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. That’s been happening with every nonprofit, especially cultural nonprofits across the country. What is our mission? And then that mission is turned into sustainable programs.” 

Aldy Milliken, executive director at the Kimball Art Center. (Tanzi Propst/Park Record)

For KAC, the next step is to consider scale. “This building (we are in) is about 30% of what I think the true size of a final Kimball Arts Center building should look like,” Milliken said. “It means we can be the creative living room of Park City and offer all of the education programs that we want, and we can host international quality exhibitions for our local population and our tourist population. We can provide an incredible creative opportunity for this community.” 

What is typically exclusive to much larger cities, the Kimball Arts Center and the Sundance Institute offer grassroots access to high-quality creativity, often before it’s “discovered” by the rest of the world. 

“I think that is our (KAC) role here in the visual art world,” Milliken said. “We’re very simpatico in the way we approach creative content. Sundance is exceptional at finding independent filmmakers and storytellers, and then creating avenues for them to further their career. I would say we do very similar things in the art world; that the artists we collaborate with are on a creative journey. By doing so, both of our organizations give access to art and creative content.”

Conquering the uphill battle for downhill skiing industry

In addition to fostering a creative economy, some see steering the economic focus even further away from the ski industry, which is dependent on natural resources like snowfall, as a viable solution for issues like labor shortages in service industries or traffic congestion. 

Can Park City vie for the title of, say, the next new and improved Silicon Slopes? Those who track the industry patterns are a little skeptical. Even the most deeply rooted techie convention-goers from all over the world arrive at the airport with their snowboard. 

“We watched a number of other mountain resort towns pursue the tech industry. But to be honest, it’s inconsistent with who we are,” said Jonathan Weidenhamer, economic director for Park City. “We’ve built this incredible destination tourist experience.”

Straying from that brand is not true to Park City’s roots, he added. But that doesn’t mean the decisions that leaders make can’t place local residents and the community as a priority. Throughout the Vision 2020 process, Parkites expressed concerns about the city catering to visitors rather than residents. 

In response to those concerns, Weidenhamer believes, for instance, that the city can continue to reduce its role in facilitating sporting events, trail races and running races so that residents have better access to facilities that remain in better condition. “I think we’ll continue to do our best to protect our residents and natural resources that surround us,” he said. 

A great example of that commitment is the city’s investment in open spaces.  Most notably the recent $38 million purchase of the 1,350-acres Bonanza Flat land and the $64 million acquisition of the Treasure hillside in 2019. 

“There’s no better statement of our willingness to protect those natural resources than that,” Weidenhamer said. 

Whether Park City addresses practical solutions for a thriving (and profitable) arts and culture district, or explores ways to protect quality of life for residents while balancing a successful tourist/recreational industry, economic sustainability needs vision, open communication, accountability and collaboration among the city, residents, and the area’s major employees to effectively address problems like affordable housing and traffic congestion. 

“I understand a lot about creative placemaking, and I understand about sustainable development and thoughtful development, intelligent development. So when we talk about growth, it’s about looking at the big picture first, and then finding solutions for ways of mitigating those issues that are problematic,” Milliken said. “It’s not about saying no to growth. Instead, it’s about learning how we can do it intelligently and sustainably in ways that will provide offerings for all people.” 

He added, “I think we’re going to find ways to encourage certain types of behavior that complement growth, then I think we’re going to be able to mitigate some of these important issues.” 

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