Shaping St. George: Part 2 of the St. George News one-on-one interview with Mayor Jon Pike

In this February 2019 file photo, St. George Mayor Jon Pike address the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce and others gathered for the "State of the City" address at Dixie State University, St. George, Utah, Feb. 6, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The desire to please people, Jon Pike admits, is naturally part of his character.

But the mayor of St. George occasionally reminds himself of the obvious: “I can’t please everybody all the time.”

In this sun-kissed city of roughly 88,000 people, the most pressing political decisions are sure to delight some and upset others. Differing opinions abound as Pike and his burgeoning city grapple with massive growth, constantly trying to balance the scales of lifestyle quality versus economic prosperity.

Many locals are quick to advise him:

We don’t want to become like California.”

“We don’t want more traffic.”

“We don’t want to grow too fast and too big.”

But in a very real sense, there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. The secret of St. George’s breathtaking beauty and the relative magnificence of its year-round climate continues to spread far beyond the Beehive State.

On Sunday, St. George News offered Part 1 of reporter Frank Forza’s one-on-one interview with Pike. Today, that wide-ranging interview continues, as the 53-year-old politico gives his thoughts on maintaining St. George’s small-town traditions, addresses all that blue clay at St. George Regional Airport (and whether it’s worth millions via a resale) and discusses the fine art of marrying paradise with profits while posing the all-important question: “How big do we want to get?”

“We must keep our traditions alive and create a vibrant economy so that our kids don’t have to grow up and move away,” Pike says. “We may not attract Microsoft and Apple, but we’ll make sure that we have the business climate that attracts those that are here, that have those skills, to grow here — and to stay here. 

“We just hope they’ll stay here and create jobs here that elevate the average wages, and make it so that our greatest resource — our children — can stay here and continue to be a resource.”

Here is Part 2 of St. George News reporter Frank Forza’s Q & A with the mayor.

STGNews: How long have you lived in St. George? 

Mayor Pike: 24 years. 

STGNews: Where were you from originally? 

Mayor Pike: Salt Lake City, so not too far away. Both my wife and I grew up there, both of us went to the University of Utah. We moved here in August 1995 — almost exactly 24 years ago. We had two children at that point; we’ve added three more, so we have five kids. Our oldest children were ages 3 and 2, so they only know St. George. 

STGNews: St. George has grown tremendously in the past 20 years, yet it still manages to keep a lot of its small-town charm and folksiness.

Mayor Pike: Yes, it does, and that’s why we continue to do some of the things that we’ve always done, and I hope we always will. 

The St. George Art Festival, which we have every Easter weekend, is 40 years old, and it brings people mostly from all over the state. Some come from out of the state. 

It’s a little thing, but we celebrate the city’s birthday (every) January, usually the second or third Saturday. We serve root beer floats and cookies. It’s not a big deal – maybe 1,000 people will come through – but the cool thing is, I see ‘old-timers’ … people that have been coming to this little event for years, and then I see new people that just moved here a few weeks ago. That’s what we want to see. 

When we have a Fourth of July carnival … it’s hot, but we have the carnival down here and the games and Talent Search stuff. We have the concert and the fireworks over at Dixie State (University), which we’re a major sponsor of. There are probably some different folks at each of those events. 

We have a parade in the morning – I can’t believe how many people come to a parade at 7:45 (a.m.) on Fourth of July, but they do! Mostly it’s people with kids, and kids love candy, and they love to see their friends that are on the floats or in entries in the parade. 

Those are some of the things I hope we always do – some of those things you can do when you’re a bigger city but you lose some of the more intimate opportunities to see your neighbors and friends. So I hope we continue to do those things as a city and as outlying communities as well

On the Veteran’s Day Parade, we partner with the whole county and do one parade in Washington City. We just thought, ‘Let’s not divide, let’s unite’ for that one so that all the schools that want to send a marching band, they can go in one parade and make that work. 

So there are various traditions that we hope will keep that small-town feel, even as we become a city of 100,000 people and a county of 200,000; 300,000; 400,000 people. It’s gonna happen. 

The numbers, the growth projections through the Governor’s Office, are usually conservative, and that means they’re usually low. 

The decade when I moved here, the 1990s, we grew at an average of 8.6% per year, but we were dealing with a smaller number of people. 

Right now we’re growing at 3-4% (annually). When you have a community that is growing among the fastest in the state – and among the fastest in the country – every year … 3 or 4% doesn’t sound that high, but that’s a high percentage. 

More and more, people are coming from everywhere. 

STGNews: In some places, earth clays can be worth quite a bit of money, depending on the quality of the clay. What is the city planning to do with all that blue clay being dug up at the airport for the runway renovations? 

Mayor Pike: Well, we’re not selling any of it. We’re actually using the clay that is of the right consistency, the right properties, we’re actually wetting it and re-using it as part of the substructure of this runway project. So some of it is going back in the hole (being dug up). I don’t know the percentages, but some of (the clay) is going at what I would call the north end of the runway, and it’s simply lengthening and raising the grade of our safety zone.

It’s never going to be part of the runway, but you like to have a safety zone for an airport on either end – you’re required to have one. This will raise it, because it was lower and now it’s going to be higher, because we’re piling up a lot of this clay that is unusable – at least on our project

STGNews: Does anyone want some of that rare clay? 

Mayor Pike: I think at this point, we want it. I’m honestly not sure how much we’ve checked to see if others want it. We’ve decided to keep it on-site and to utilize it for that buffer, that safety zone on the north end of the airport, to just raise that. It helps us in several ways. 

STGNews: How much clay are we talking about? Have you ever thought what you could get, monetarily, for all that clay, especially blue clay? 

Mayor Pike: I don’t know how (many pounds) it is – we can try to find out – but it’s a lot. 

I suppose this and maybe surrounding areas, if that really were a marketable thing and the cost of moving it was still efficient … certainly that could be entertained. 

But right now, we’re so focused on two things: getting the project done successfully and doing it at an affordable price. And of course this all had to be approved since the FAA is paying for 91% of this through their passenger fees, and we’re paying the other 9% through our airport operations fees. Our immediate focus is on doing it efficiently and affordably

But (at the airport) they’ve taken soil from on-site and that is the bulk of what’s going back in the hole. Then the clay that is totally unsuitable they are putting on the north end of the runway … to raise the grade of that part of the runway.

And that is one of the reasons why (the airport upgrades) are not more expensive – because almost all of the fill material is coming from somewhere on the airport site, and it’s all staying on-site. None of it is leaving, so that makes it more affordable. 

In the future, with other excavation projects, if it makes sense to haul it off-site and sell it, we will certainly consider that. I think for what we’re doing with this major (airport) project, (the clay’s) probably going to all remain on-site permanently, but you never know, things could change. If there were a market for it, that could maybe change. 

STGNews: What have been your biggest challenges as mayor? 

Mayor Pike: Trying to communicate with (the public), and get input and also get the word out. Two-way communication with the citizens is the greatest challenge and it’s the greatest opportunity. Two-way communication so that we know what their questions are, their input, what their needs and desires are — and so that they can know what’s on our minds and what we’re planning. Communication is probably maybe the greatest time consumer and the most important thing.

With all the modes of (communication), it’s still hard to do. You know, not everyone is on Facebook, not everyone looks at websites … people are busy living their lives. We never want to be unaware of what they’re thinking; we don’t ever want to be aloof or taking cover in our offices at City Hall. We want to make sure that they know that we have the public’s interest at the forefront of our minds in everything that we do, every day.

But it’s not easy to always communicate that. So that’s why you’ll see us doing more and more surveys. It’s why we have (Communications and Marketing Director David Cordero) out here, obviously his key job is to help us communicate our messages and to help with the public surveys that we’re doing. 

The Master Plan for the arts and parks … we have people saying right now, ‘We’d like to see you build 24 new pickleball courts, and we’d like to build them where the other complex is at Little Valley. In fact, we’d like you to basically plow over the soccer fields next door that you just built, and build those pickleball courts.’ Well, we can’t do that. 

We have other people that say, “Build pickleball courts in our park. Build us four. Build two here, build two there.”

So we have to try and take all of that in, try and see what will help the most people, and prioritize. 

Obviously money is an issue too. There will never be enough money for everything. So we have to go back to the Rolling Stones and say, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but hopefully we’ll get what we need.’ (smiles and chuckles)

And we’ll try to consider everybody with everything. We may not have enough dog parks for everyone’s wishes. We may not have enough pickleball courts for everyone’s wishes. We may not have enough bike trails or bike parks…but we’ll have some of everything and hopefully that will be enough and people will see the wisdom in trying to spread the resources out

Maybe they might have to drive or walk a little bit farther, but they can get to those venues and hopefully have that quality of life that we’ve enjoyed for the 24 years we’ve lived here. 

You know, the people that maybe have the most right to complain – the people that were born and raised here in St. George maybe 50, 60, 70 years ago – that they feel like we’ve taken what they planned for, what they bonded for, what they’ve helped pay for during their time here … I mean, if they didn’t build Quail Creek reservoir, I wouldn’t be here, you know?

If we didn’t do Sand Hollow Reservoir, you might not be here. So that begs the question: What will we do, and how big do we want to get?

Those are tough questions. That’s where the Lake Powell Pipeline comes into play, and tough, tough decisions have to be made.

My feeling is, we don’t have to try too hard to grow – we’re going to grow. I think some people are critical and they think, ‘Oh, the mayor and the council, they’re kind of in cahoots with the developers.’ I can honestly tell you, we’re not! (chuckles)

We don’t stand to personally gain from any of this. What we do try to to do is honor everyone’s property rights. I don’t have property to develop and build an office building, or a manufacturing plant, or an apartment building. I don’t have it.

But I do hope that the city will always respect that I bought into a residential neighborhood, and I’d like it to be conducive to that. And if I did own 30 acres out in Little Valley, I’d like to think that some day, if I don’t want to farm it any more, that I could develop it into something else – within reason. The city doesn’t owe me anything, but I’d like to be able to do something with it if it’s not really conducive to farming any more or my grandkids don’t want to.

That’s what we try to do. So if we try to do good by as many people as possible, then we’ve succeeded. And it will be the next mayor, and the next (city) council, over time, that will continue to hopefully listen (to citizens wishes) and respond.

STGNews: What you’re describing sounds kind of like a referee.

Mayor Pike: Well, we were recently talking about Fourth of July and Independence Day and the story was, as Benjamin Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention, he was asked, ‘So what form of government have you provided for us?’

And he said, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’

Those were his words.

What is a republic? We call it a ‘democratic’ republic. But we primarily elect officials at all levels of government, and we depend on them to represent us. It’s not a pure democracy – it’s a republic.

But that takes constant vigilance, on our part – yours and mine as citizens – to make sure that we stay in the game, at least enough that we can make sure that those we’ve called upon to represent us (politicians), are doing it the way the way we’d like to see them do it.

I just told a group of kids that last night at a church thing, a fireside…I was speaking as the mayor and that was one of my messages, I told them:

Yes, I know it’s hard, but let’s try to (politically) interact in a more appropriate way so that everyone wants to be involved and they don’t consider themselves sullied by stepping into the messy, nasty, contemptuous political realm. It shouldn’t be like that. As they say, ‘We might disagree but we don’t have to be disagreeable.’

We certainly shouldn’t be hateful, contemptuous, or we’re going to lose that republic.

Email: fforza@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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