Tom Clyde: Sundance Film Festival weighs down an authentic mountain town
So, here it is: the annual Sundance Tow Truck Festival. Everybody is so excited about it. The Salt Lake Tribune published lists of celebrities you might glimpse walking down Main Street or going into private lounges that you will never get near. They publish tips for viewing the whole affair; things like “wear a warm jacket and boots,” and “use the bus.”
Using the bus to get around town is a great idea, and it works pretty well once you are actually in town. It’s the getting here that is the problem.
I guess there will be bus service from the smash-and-grab lots at Richardson Flat and Ecker Hill.
I carefully read the list of expected celebrities from a sense of civic obligation. I mean, if there are Kardashians amongst us, is not our civic duty to be on site to adore them? Anyway, from a list of about 30 celebrities, the only name I recognized was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. That probably is an admission of my lowbrow taste in movies, but he is apparently upping his game this year by appearing in some artsy Sundance movie. Somehow, I don’t need to see The Rock as Hamlet.
The Tribune’s listing of important people who will be in our midst included a list of the movies they have been in. That was supposed to help us find that “oh, yeah, her” moment by remembering the movie she was in. I didn’t know the movies any more than the stars. The end result is that I could be randomly seated next to a very famous person on a chairlift and not even know it. As long as they don’t bring the safety bar down on my knee, I don’t care. So as far as I’m concerned, the list of celebrities I have skied with is longer than my arm, and our conversations on the chair were always scintillating. “I’m going left at the top, OK?”
I actually did have an on-lift encounter with stardom once. Many years ago, when Payday was a triple chair, I ended up on a chair with Robert Redford and his then-teenage daughter. I recognized him immediately. There was no conversation about directorial decisions on the lift. He and the daughter were engaged in one of those absolutely typical parent/child discussions about whether she had put sunblock on, and she saying she did not because it was gross, and he saying she would get cancer, and she insisting that she would not, and he saying don’t take that attitude with me. And so on to the top of the chair. As celebrity encounters go, I found it quite satisfying. We all put our pants on one leg at a time.
Throughout the years, the Sundance Film Festival has grown along with Park City. It has gone from a filler event to plug the after-Christmas slump in the ski season to its current iteration, stomping around town like Godzilla. Through the past several years, there has been a disturbing trend of taking expensive Park City real estate and pulling it off the market to only operate as a Sundance venue.
The old Sports Authority building sits idle most of the year. There is another Sundance venue in a former Crossfit gym next door Walgreens. Main Street has several buildings that sit empty except for the festival weeks (or, really, the first weekend) when they are transformed into sponsors’ lounges for the special people.
In a town where we are struggling to maintain our authenticity while the middle class gets run out of town by unaffordable housing prices, it bothers me to have important buildings like the Claimjumper and the old Union Pacific Depot empty most of the time, used only as temporary stages for an event as inauthentic as Sundance. Space on Main Street is hard to get. Is it really more profitable to rent space out for two weeks at extortionate Sundance rates than to have a going business there all year? If so, there’s something wrong.
The Sundance traffic seems terrible, but it’s not materially worse than normal traffic. The ordinary back-ups on both 248 and 224 leave people at a dead stop on the freeways with 65 mph traffic coming up from behind. It’s life-threatening, but apparently it’s OK because we don’t fix it. The City is very proud of their new electronic traffic control system, but so far, the daily back-ups are worse than last year, which was worse than the year before. Main Street will be terrible during Sundance, but the rest of town? Well gridlock is gridlock, whether it’s stretch limos or plumbers’ vans.
Someday, I hope to see a documentary film about a small, authentic mountain town that sold its soul for millions of dollars in free media exposure, and gets what it asked for.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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The governments of the Wasatch Back have to reckon with its future as a contiguous metro area, Tom Clyde writes.