Affordable housing champion, arts advocate, puppy raiser, and chocolatier Phyllis Robinson has enriched Park City in many ways
March 26, 2018
In 1995, when Salt Lake City won the bid to host the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, it set Park City on a new course toward international recognition. It also made an indelible mark on the lives of a young couple in Washington, D.C.
Newly married, Brooks and Phyllis Robinson were hankering to leave the crowded East Coast and return to Utah where Brooks, a landscape architect and environmental planner, had earned his masters degree. A friend mentioned that Park City, which was slated to host many of the Olympic contests, was creating new planning positions to handle the anticipated mega-event.
The Robinsons jumped at the chance to move to the mountains, arriving in Park City just as the city was beginning to ramp up its preparations to "welcome the world."
Brooks signed on with Park City Municipal Corp. as a planner but Phyllis chose a different route.
The town was already experiencing growing pains, notably a lack of affordable housing for its burgeoning work force. A local group of church and business leaders had gathered to address the issue but their efforts were stymied by private market forces and the federal government's complicated housing policies. It so happened, though, that during her stint in D.C. Phyllis had become familiar with a raft of new initiatives just being rolled out by the department of Housing and Urban Development.
With a modest stipend she quickly took the reins, rebooting the group now known as the Mountainlands Community Housing Trust and embarking on an effort to establish one of the city's first major affordable housing projects.
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"I was hired for 20 hours a week for three months because that is all the money they had," she laughs, adding that, at one point, she had to choose between paying the rent for the group's small office or cashing her paycheck.
She chose to pay the rent.
According to Myles Rademan, the city's community development director at the time, "Phyllis had a level of expertise that none of us had then. She really saved those units for the community."
Phyllis acknowledges that social activism is part of her DNA. Her parents were devout Catholics—not necessarily in terms of doctrine, but definitely in terms of spirit. Her grandfather was a labor organizer and her dad was "a big union man" who had been disabled in a workplace accident at the local steel mill.
"We grew up in a very blue-collar neighborhood, it was a close-knit community where everyone looked out for each other." Despite her father's "aches and pains" Phyllis added that her dad was always concerned about those who were less fortunate.
"He was always looking always had a larger perspective on things. That's who he was as a human being, Mom was the same way."
Phyllis's favorite memory of her late mom, Catherine McDonough, relates to her feisty crusade to save the local senior center in Baltimore. "When there were injustices she would get outraged. I guess some of it rubbed off on me."
In 2007, Phyllis was drafted by the city to fill a full-time position as community and public affairs manager in which she took on assignments from wrangling reporters during heated controversies to encouraging citizen involvement in a variety of local initiatives. The post gave her a platform to apply the lessons learned from her parents about the importance of serving all walks of life.
According to former Park City mayor Brad Olch, "Phyllis is one of those people who worked behind the scenes to make Park City a better place."
Dogs, Enlightenment, Chocolate
But the Robinsons aren't just policy wonks. The two are also well known around town for their involvement in a variety of other worthy causes.
Most notably, they are almost always accompanied by adorable yellow lab puppies.
Brooks and Phyllis have been volunteering for Guide Dogs for the Blind since 2003. While the parade of puppies (they are currently training their 13th service dog) has taken a toll on their cork floors, Phyllis says it has been extremely rewarding to see the difference the dogs make in their new owners' lives.
"People say how can you give up your dogs and, it's true, it breaks your heart every time but it has been such a wonderful experience for us," she said.
The couple recently joined a parade of puppy-raisers on Main Street to highlight a new documentary about service dogs that premiered during this past January's Slamdance Film Festival, and she encourages others to consider becoming puppy-raisers.
"There is always a need for more," she said explaining that service dogs are being trained to help people with a variety of conditions from diabetes and epilepsy to PTSD.
Over the years, Phyllis has also found time to volunteer for the Park City Institute, where she now serves as president of the Board of Directors. As a brand-new resident, she remembers attending the Institute's first performance at the Eccles Center and marveling that she could live in a small mountain town and yet walk across the street to see internationally known artists such as the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, among others.
The Eccles Center recently celebrated its 20th year of programming on the stage adjacent to the Park City High School and Phyllis was invited to address the full-to-capacity 1,260-seat auditorium.
"I think it has added another dimension to the city," she says.
Phyllis credits the Institute with not only providing entertainment, but also expanding its mission to "educate and enlighten" its audiences.
"It has grown from being a great presenter at the Eccles to also offering things that challenge us," she said, referring to programs featuring the likes of Monica Lewinsky, Van Jones, and Edward Snowden in addition to locally produced TEDX presentations for women and teens.
According to Phyllis, the existence of an arts organization of the Institute's caliber is remarkable for a town the size of Park City.
Phyllis stepped down from her post at City Hall in 2016 to start a handcrafted chocolate company, Tandem Chocolates. Brooks has also retired and the two have spent a lot of time traveling—to the Galapagos Islands for Brooks' 60th birthday and to Tanzania for their 25th wedding anniversary. Phyllis has made trips to Paris, Milan, and Venice to hone her chocolate-making skills.
But there is no question about the return destination.
"This is home," she says. "It's not just a place where you get up in the morning and go to work and come home. People participate, people care about this place."