ST. GEORGE – Of the American South, author William Faulkner once wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Last night in Utah’s Dixie, it seemed like the past was never more than a breath away as candidates for St. George City Council met at the Gardner Center ballroom at Dixie State University to discuss and debate the future of Southern Utah. The four candidates are: Ed Baca, Michele Randall, Joe Bowcutt and Tara Dunn.
The discussion at the forum drifted from last month’s animal shelter investigation, to the purchase of the historic Electric Theater on Tabernacle Street, to the wisdom of spending $2 million to preserve the Dixie Sunbowl at its present location. Even the subject of the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline seemed nostalgic to candidate Ed Baca.
Lake Powell Pipeline
“What a topic,” Baca said, “this has been going on for at least 10 years, that I know of,” Baca said of the plan to connect the waters of Lake Powell to St. George. A project which, according to some estimates, may cost over $1 billion.
All of the candidates said that they thought the politicization of the issue has made it difficult to distinguish reality from spin.
“In all of the research and meetings and face-to-face time I’ve had with the water conservancy district and others on the pipeline, I still don’t have the answers to the questions I’ve been asking,” candidate Randall said. Without knowing the exact costs, Randall said she isn’t prepared to make a final decision on the pipeline. She said that the issue should decided by popular vote.
“I think you need a referendum when you’re talking about a billion dollars,” Randall said, “to let citizens decide if they want the pipeline or not.”
Bowcutt said that when he listens to both those in favor and those opposed to the project he comes away with the sense that the two sides are discussing two different things. However, of the four candidates, only Bowcutt could say that he was sold on the idea.
“I think we need the water,” Bowcutt said, “if they voted tomorrow, I’d vote for the Lake Powell Pipeline.”
Tara Dunn didn’t seem quite so sure that the pipeline is the right answer. She said that she has spent the last year researching the issue and talking to myriad groups involved with the project.
“They don’t have a lot of data yet,” Dunn said. “They’re still trying to figure out how much it costs and how we’re going to pay for it. It’s very difficult for me to see how anybody could firmly get behind something where we have very little data.”
She is also concerned about what a $1.2 billion bill might do to property taxes in Southern Utah, Dunn said. She’s not convinced that impact fees will cover the cost.
“We’re going to spend all that money and plan for impact fees to pay for it,” she said, “and if that doesn’t come to fruition, that’s going to be on our backs. I don’t want our property taxes to go through the roof because we didn’t have all of the data when we made a decision.”
Like Randall and Dunn, Baca said that he hasn’t yet been convinced that investing in the pipeline is the right thing to do right now.
“Without water, we are in big trouble,” Baca said, “we have to have water, but not necessarily at any cost.”
Baca said he is most concerned about the fact that the Washington County Water Conservancy District has been given the authority to decide water rates.
“They can raise, in effect, our taxes, and they’re not elected. There’s no recourse for us,” Baca said, “and I have found that to be problematic.”
The question of whether the city should provide a venue for performing and visual arts led naturally to a discussion about the Electric Theater. The city recently purchased the historic building and surrounding properties with plans to renovate the space into a performing and visual arts center.
Both Baca and Bowcutt were present at a recent city council work meeting in which plans for the theater were discussed at length. Both candidates balked at how quickly the estimated $250,000 cost of renovating the facility turned into a much larger figure.
“As the conversation expanded, and (it became clear that) what we needed to do involved all four of the buildings,” Baca said, “when the meeting was adjourned we were looking at $1.7 million in the budget.”
However, Baca said that the city will raise funds by selling city property rather than incurring debt and raising taxes. Ultimately he thinks the project will be worth the investment, he said, as an active arts district will lead to a more active downtown, extending business hours and driving additional sales tax revenue for the city.
Randall agreed, pointing out that by purchasing and renovating the property the city stands to add up to 19,000 square feet of space for performing and visual arts. Although that seems like a lot of money, Randall said, it’s a good deal for the city because the cost of purchasing a similarly suitable area downtown and building an arts center from scratch would likely cost nearly $5 million.
Over the years, residents have complained that the city is too zealous in enforcing codes, with some going so far as to say that the city violates Fourth Amendment privacy rights by looking over fences and walls into residents backyards. Others have accused city officials of selective enforcement of city code, going out of their way to enforce the violations of political and personal enemies while ignoring the violations of friends and family.
Dunn had much to say on this topic.
“I actually ran because of code enforcement,” Dunn said, referring to her 2011 campaign for City Council. Dunn described a situation in her neighborhood where inadequate drainage had led to significant property damage. She said that when she called the city to ask them about putting in a storm drain to divert the runoff, she was told that she would have to pay for the storm drain herself.
“I told them, if this were a village in Belize, I believe that would be an appropriate plan,” Dunn said, “but this is an incorporated city in the United State of America, to which I pay taxes. You are going to put the drain in.”
Dunn prevailed and the city put in the drain, however she said that she doesn’t believe it was a coincidence when code enforcement officials appeared on her doorstep soon afterward.
“Ultimately we got a $600 fine for rocks in the Fort Pierce Wash,” Dunn said. “Their rocks on their property.”
Dunn said she and her husband were further dismayed when, at the hearing to decide their case, they were told they were not able to contest the fine.
“They essentially tell you ‘this is not a fact-disputing hearing,'” Dunn said. “When I asked what kind of hearing it was, they said ‘this is a where-we-tell-you-how-much-you-owe hearing.'”
Randall, Baca and Bowcutt all said that they were in favor of reviewing the current city code.
Bowcutt said that he would like to make city codes more user friendly, while Randall said she would like to see antiquated codes removed from the books.
For Baca, many of the city’s code enforcement issues are due to high turnover and poor training. He also worries about selective code enforcement, he said.
“When there’s favoritism or it appears that way,” Baca said, “that’s the problem.”
Randall and Bowcutt both came out strongly in favor of keeping the Dixie Sunbowl at its current location, while Dunn and Baca balked at the $2 million dollar estimated cost to renovate the 65-year-old stadium.
“If I had to vote today, I’d vote to renovate it,” Bowcutt said. “We have to realize that there is a lot of tradition there. There is a lot of emotion involved in that decision. People love going there.”
“Yes, I would love to see it redone,” Randall said, “I would love to see us be able to keep the Sunbowl. But my issue is that I campaigned on transparency – that’s the number one thing I campaigned on – and all of a sudden you find out there’s already a three-way deal going on and the public didn’t know about it.”
Randall was referring to discussions between the Washington County School District, Dixie State University, and the St. George Lions Club. While nothing has been officially announced, there are rumors that officials are working on a deal in which DSU would build a new venue for the Dixie Roundup Rodeo, East Elementary would be moved – perhaps to where the Sunbowl currently sits – and DSU would acquire the old East Elementary building. At the very least, these possibilities have been discussed.
Randall said that she wonders if the public will ultimately get a say in what happens to the Sunbowl. “If I was betting woman, I’d guess that we won’t have much say,” she said.
Baca said that he is open to a deal that results in a new location for the Sunbowl: “My bottom line is the Sunbowl should remain in the city limits of St. George.”
Dunn said that, while she recognizes and appreciates the emotional connection that some residents have with the Sunbowl, there are logistical difficulties with its current location in addition to the renovation costs, such as inadequate parking and high noise levels in a residential area.
All candidates agreed that the St. George Lions Club, which has sponsored the Dixie Roundup Rodeo at the Sunbowl since it first opened, should be an integral part of whatever the city decides to do with the property.
On the question of how to best achieve sustainable growth, Baca, Randall and Dunn all pointed to the principles outlined in the Vision Dixie plan.
Vision Dixie was launched in 2006 by a group of 400 residents from the various communities in Washington County with the idea that while the various municipalities and communities embody independence, it was in the best interests of the region as a whole to formulate common goals. Today, all 15 municipalities in the county participate. The Vision Dixie Plan was adopted in 2007 and is summed up by 10 goals:
- Plan regionally, implement locally.
- Maintain air and water quality and conserve water.
- Guard our ‘signature’ scenic landscapes.
- Provide rich, conneted natural recreation and open space.
- Build balanced transportation that includes a system of public transportation, connected roads, and meaningful opportunities to bike and walk.
- Get ‘centered’ by focusing growth on walkable, mixed-use centers.
- Direct growth inward.
- Provide a broad range of housing types to meet the needs of all income levels, family types and stages of life.
- Reserve key areas for industry to grow the economic pie.
- Focused public land conversion should sustain community goals and preserve critical lands.
Dunn said she thinks that the principles of Vision Dixie are sound. “I don’t want to see the city or the county put itself in a situation where we are forcing growth,” she said. “We don’t want to have an economy built only on real estate and construction markets,” an economic model that she described as a house of cards.
“It isn’t sustainable to have everybody employed as a realtor or a construction worker because eventually that stops,” Dunn said. “We need to have living-wage jobs that extend beyond just the market of growth.”
“When I think of smart growth, I look at Vision Dixie,” Baca said, “it included considerations for our open space area, for our water and energy resources, for our roads, but the biggest thing I get out of it is the need to be able to control our density.”
He recognizes that there is a lot of room for growth in the area, but, Baca said, we don’t want the population to grow faster than our infrastructure.
Randall was similarly concerned about the pace of growth. “We can’t just grow and burst at the seams without the necessary infrastructure,” she said. “I’m not excited to think about St. George being a population of 500,000 people. But I also don’t think we need to shut the doors and say ‘no growth this year.'”
She thinks the city should focus on bringing high paying jobs into the community and raising the quality of life for residents, Randall said. “Those are the things that I think come with smart growth.”
For Bowcutt, growth is something that happens organically. “I don’t think we can restrict it,” he said, “and we don’t want to entice people to move here just because we have a little land. I think supply and demand will make that happen.”
The candidates have several more public forums and debates before the election on November 5 in which two City Council seats are up for grabs. If sitting City Council member Jon Pike wins his bid for the mayoral race, his seat will then be filled by appointment and may go to one of the two runners-up in the City Council race.
Pike faced sitting mayor Dan McArthur in a separate mayoral debate, also held at DSU last night.
- Letter to the Editor: The flaws of ‘Fill Mead First’
- Dixie Roundup opening: ‘Nitro’ Circus, bulls and bikes; STGNews Videocast, Photo Gallery
- Letter to the Editor: St. George fear squad bullies meet Citizens Against Incumbent Tyrannical Servants
- Children’s Museum opens in fall, multiple exhibits come together through community effort
- Bad medicine: Shelter report shadowed by questions
- Animal shelter investigation findings, action
- Feds cut water from Lake Powell; resource planning committee hears pipeline alternatives
- Backyard chickens run afoul of city ordinance
- The WAY I see it: Transparency, nice platform, painstaking process; can we see our way through it?
- Mayor accused of intimidating animal shelter volunteers
- Residents meet with DSU, city officials on future of student housing
- St. George passes budget; Musical Theater, SunTran expansion discussed
- Letter to the Editor: Lake Powell Pipeline a ‘Good Ol’ Boy’ scam, a ‘pipe dream’
- Augmenting the ‘Heart of St. George,’ Children’s Museum, purchase of Electric Theater
- ON Kilter: Lake Powell Pipeline, dead at last
- Last dance for Dixie’s Round-up Rodeo and Sunbowl?
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