Guest opinion: Park City’s success as a resort destination wasn’t inevitable. Neither is the town’s future.
Let’s explode a few persistent myths and face some inconvenient truths:
It is not true that growth is inevitable and must be accommodated. Aging, decay and death are certainly inevitable — maybe taxes and “the iron law of economics” are too, but not necessarily growth. As a matter of fact, many who have worked for more than 40 years to help Park City grow into the world-class resort community it is today realize how hard it is to attract the kind of growth that leads to prosperity and success. This growth was not inevitable, it didn’t just happen. It was a hard, long, frustrating effort to pivot from an almost “ghost mining town” into the amenity-rich community we love today. Since then thousands of units have been built in Park City and the Snyderville Basin and 4 to 6 million square feet of additional growth have been approved but not yet built. Our population in 1980 was about 4,500 and now 40 years latter it is probably closer to 30,000. This is hardly a “no growth” agenda as some claim.
It is true that the urge to grow and take advantage of the hard-earned success of others is strong. Success attracts growth. But not all growth is the same. It is not all good, wanted or appropriate. Remember, cancers are a form of growth and yet we fight cancer with every means available. Growth does not have to occur just because developers want to build. Nor do our leaders need to spur additional development with legislative growth hormones, stimulants and accelerants which only serve to fuel this current growth mania. I think it’s time to absorb what has already been permitted and see how well we accommodate it. So just because someone tells you growth is inevitable, what they’re really telling you is to stop thinking about the implications of more growth and just get out of the way.
Plans, actions and political resolve should flow from agreed upon visions. “Keeping Park City, Park City” has been one such guiding vision and mantra for many years. Even as the area has dramatically grown and changed we have continually strived to maintain a certain sense of community and ambiance that Keeps Park City “Park City.” This vision is based on clearly stated core values of protecting and enhancing our Sense of Community, Natural Setting and Small Town & Historic Character. These are the attributes that make the greater Park City area successful and a wonderful place to live and visit. They provide the underpinnings of our economic success. Our planning, actions and developmental approvals should reflect and enhance this vision.
While Park City strives to be a “complete community” it cannot and never could be “everything for everybody.” It is simply too small and too constrained. To stay successful we have focused on our strengths and avoided what we chose not to become. County Council Chair Doug Clyde, a well-respected mountain resort consultant, wrote a letter to The Park Record in 2013 in which he stated this obvious truth in clear and ringing tones: “Park City, he wrote, is successful because of our small-town character and the forces of urbanization that we are confronting can, and will, destroy our success as a destination resort. Manhattan in the Mountains is a term of art used in my business to reflect an urban ‘village’ without a soul and for us this is just around the corner. While New Urbanism has a role in responsible land development, it is not fungible with character and charm… The fact is that the most successful resorts in the world similar to ours are very small towns that maintain their ambiance while inviting millions of visitors each year. We are on the edge of becoming a homogeneous blur with the Snyderville (Basin) and/or just another bedroom community of Salt Lake”.
This highlights the imperative to sometimes “just say no.” Critics call this NIMBYism. And it’s true, there are many things we don’t want in our backyard. And probably there are many things you don’t want in your backyard either. By way of historical perspective our community has said “No, not in my backyard” many times over the years: What is now the McPolin Farm and Barn was proposed to be a Smith’s 30 years ago. The town said, “Not in my backyard” and paid to purchase and preserve it. The Carl Winters School, now the Park City Library & Education Center and Field, was proposed to be a hotel complex and restaurant. The town said “Not in my backyard” and converted it into the outstanding community amenity and open space it is today. The list goes on: Round Valley was proposed as an exclusive golf course and high-end housing development before the citizens said “Not in my backyard” and purchased it to create over 2,000 acres of open space and trails; the Tech Park was proposed for 800 housing units until the county and city ponied up $25 million and purchased open space and created the Tech Park development agreement; Treasure Mountain was proposed as a huge hotel and conference center dwarfing historic Old Town until it was purchased with taxpayer bond money as open space; and Bonanza Flat up on Guardsman Pass and the Osguthorpe Farm on Old Ranch Road were proposed for housing developments until the citizens once again said “Not in my backyard” and saved them as open space for future generations.
So don’t be fooled. Not every development is appropriate, wanted or inevitable. The pressure to grow and alter the Snyderville Basin is great because developers know there is an almost insatiable market for what we’ve saved, created and paid for together: the open spaces, trails, schools and other amenities. These amenities and public goods are already straining with increased use and there are limits to what can be added in the future. So while the pressure to grow is strong, such pressure is not the same as inevitability. The difference between pressure and inevitability comes from maintaining a clear vision of who we are, what we value and, most importantly, citizens willing to stand up and take the time and effort to say “No, not in my backyard” when the need arises.
This in no way negates the desire of a younger generation to be a permanent part of the greater Park City community. The unaffordability of achieving this desire is easy to see. We need this generation and must do whatever realistically can be done to assist them. But one of the inconvenient truths that cannot be avoided is that nobody yet has been able to suspend the “iron law of economics” which essentially states that beautiful, precious and rare places are valuable, and wealthy people can afford to move to such places while others cannot. We see this daily in our rising home prices. To make even a dent in this economic imbalance requires concerted governmental, nonprofit and private sector action. To date local governments have assisted in the creation of hundreds of affordable housing units and more are currently being built and/or are on the drawing board. But again let’s not be fooled by affordable housing “window dressing” often proposed in current development proposals to secure greater density. Thinking we can foist past affordable housing responsibilities on the private sector is a fool’s game not adequately addressing the core issue. For instance the owners of the Tech Park (Dakota Pacific Real Estate) are proposing 1,100 housing units along with hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space and a luxury hotel. Less than 25% of their proposed housing is in a price range that is affordable for people working in our local resort service economy. And even these units are contingent on tenuous federal funding programs. Consequently, 75% or more of these units will probably be occupied by people who will probably be commuting to the Salt Lake Valley. If our community is serious about helping our younger generation gain a foothold, we must do what the private sector cannot do, which is put our money where our mouth is and purchase and donate land to help build affordable housing for those who want to both work and live here. The Tech Park might be a good place to do exactly this.
Once again we find Park City and the Snyderville Basin at a crossroads, or some would say an inflection point. The long-held visions that have guided our success as a small mountain resort town are under assault. If we as a community no longer concur with these visions, we should at the very least have an open discussion and modify or alter them, but we should never allow the very foundations of our success to erode through inadvertence or inaction. The worst indictment I can imagine is for residents 10 years from now to incredulously ask, “Who let that happen?”
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In the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, PJ Falten has been thinking about the “fallen heroes who gave their lives so that something like last Wednesday could never happen on sacred ground. … What would they have thought?”