WASHINGTON CITY – City officials met with a nonprofit group focused on preserving the Warm Springs to discuss a potential development agreement for a multimillion-dollar project during a Tuesday night workshop meeting of the Washington City Council.
Members of the Boiling Springs Ecoseum and Desert Preserve stood before the City Council and presented aspects of their proposal to preserve and restore the Warm Springs while also creating a large ecological conservatory and public garden around it. The group also has plans to include nearby Millcreek Canyon.
“Our aim is to preserve this sacred land from damage and from destruction,” said Nicole Warner, executive director of the committee leading the ecoseum nonprofit group. “And we have confidence the necessary stakeholders and authorities will act to preserve the public’s trust and interest. We believe this community recognizes and that they desire the restoration of the quality and sanctity of these sites.”
The Warm Springs has historic and sentimental value to residents of Washington City, as it was a chief water source for Mormon colonists sent to settle the area. While primarily used for irrigation, it was also used as a swimming hole.
The springs is located on a parcel of undeveloped city property on the west side of southbound Interstate 15 just south of the Main Street underpass. The fence around the site was recently removed by the city which was originally erected in the late 1990s due to public safety concerns.
Some downtown city residents still have water shares attached to the springs, and expressed concern over how the ecoseum project, if approved, might affect their water rights and the quality of the water they use.
“I’m very jealous of my water,” resident Penn Smith said.
Tuesday night’s meeting marked the second time the nonprofit group has gone before the Washington City Council with a potential development agreement for the city-owned property around the Warm Springs. The first attempt was in April 2013. At the time the plan wasn’t approved, though the council left the door open for the ecoseum project to come back at some future date with a revised plan.
“We haven’t had any significant feedback from the City Council on the agreement in nearly two years,” said Matt Ence, an attorney with Snow Jensen and Reece. The law firm is currently representing the group free of charge because it sees value in the project, he said.
Though it is the first presentation of the revised agreement before the City Council proper since 2013, Warner said the council members have been very accommodating with their time and input on the project overall. Even the ecoseum’s harshest critics have given them time to create a better plan, she said.
The development agreement set before the council would create a public-private partnership between the city and the nonprofit group in which the ecoseum would be allowed to lease the property around the Warm Springs for 99 years for $1 a year.
While the ecoseum would see to the building of a multimillion-dollar facility on the site – potentially funded by various grants and private donations – the city would gain sales tax revenue generated by the ecoseum. Under the revised terms of the proposed agreement, the city would also have a member on the board overseeing the project, and a previous mention of eminent domain is removed.
The ecosuem’s overall facilities, which would include a nature conservatory, public gardens, a restaurant, parks and various educational venues, are projected to run around $50 million to develop.
Once built, the ecoseum could employ up to 100 people and possibly generate over $91,000 in annual sales tax revenue, said Morris Peacock, a certified public accountant with HintonBurdick. “Our projections are fairly conservative,” he said.
While preserving the Warm Springs, the site would also become a tourist attraction, supporters said, as Washington County is itself a tourist destination and is also centrally located between various national parks and other attractions in the region.
Much attention was also given the educational possibilities the ecoseum could produce.
David Jones, a member of the ecoseum’s leading committee and chair of the biology department of Dixie State University, told the City Council the university has interests in the project. Specifically, they see an opportunity to create a research institute backed by a research consortium of schools and other parties. With the creation of the consortium also comes the possibility for additional grant money, Jones said.
“We look at the future of this, and the potential … becomes almost endless,” Jones said.
Some city residents were not happy about the idea of the partnership between the ecoseum and the city. They said the city should simply sell the property to the nonprofit group while also making sure their water rights remain in intact.
“I don’t believe government should be in bed with private (entities),” Smith said. “I’m fundamentally opposed to it.”
Councilman Thad Seegmiller said he is concerned about partnering with the nonprofit due to red tape that often comes attached with federal grants; he doesn’t want the Warm Springs to get caught up in that possibility, he said.
Councilman Jeff Turek had similar thoughts and said he wonders about separating the Warm Springs from the parcel the ecoseum is asking for.
“I think it’s pretty well known where I stand on this idea,” Turek said, “but at least the Boilers and the water should be protected and parceled off.”
While there were worries about becoming entangled in the red tape of federal grants and lingering concerns about aspects of the development agreement, other members of the council expressed support for the ecoseum idea.
Concerning restoring the Warm Springs and preserving the rights of the water users, Councilman Kress Staheli didn’t see a conflict.
“I don’t think those two goals are contradictory,” he said, adding he feels the nonprofit members would prove good stewards of the Warm Springs.
Councilman Ron Truman also was more supportive of the idea.
“I think we can work through the issues to make sure everyone is adequately protected,” Truman said. “Personally, I don’t want us to be shortsighted about this.”
Tuesday night was a workshop meeting, and so, the council did not take action on the development agreement. Though opinions were mixed on how to proceed, discussion between city officials and the nonprofit group concerning the future of the Warm Springs and the ecoseum is anticipated to continue.
“We hope the city will share our vision for what the project can be,” Ence said.
For KCSG and St. George News, Melissa Anderson and Mori Kessler contributed the videocast attached to this report.
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- The Boilers: Saving an ecosystem that exists nowhere else on earth
- Nonprofit launches crowd funding project to save Boilers, Millcreek Canyon
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- Group has big plans for Boilers, Millcreek Canyon; city council not so sure
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