ST. GEORGE — The Washington County St. George Interlocal Agency board held a public meeting Monday afternoon at the Dixie Center St. George to discuss a vote held June 23 to change the name of the convention center building to the Greater Zion Convention Center to be more in line with the tourism and convention office’s branding.
The public meeting, which contained only one agenda item, allowed for community members to voice their concerns after board members heard from residents who felt strongly about what many of them saw as a removal of the area’s pioneer history by taking out the word “Dixie” from the convention center’s name.
The board, often called the “Dixie Center Board,” is tasked with making decisions that are in the best interest of the convention center facility and comprises Washington County Commission members; city of St. George personnel, including the mayor, City Council member Bryan Smethurst and City Manager Adam Lenhard; and a member representing the hospitality industry.
Kevin Lewis, director of the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, said Monday that the convention center is a critical component of the tourism economy, bringing in about $60 million a year.
Lewis presented the marketing strategy and vision of Greater Zion to those in attendance at the beginning of the meeting.
In last week’s regular meeting of the board, which meets quarterly, the group voted to officially change the name from the Dixie Center St. George to the Greater Zion Convention Center.
It was a decision that had been part of the conversation for nearly a year since the tourism and convention office changed its name in May 2019 to create a more focused branding.
The Greater Zion name is meant to unify community members and allow Washington County residents to claim Zion National Park as their own while also focusing on the greater area, Lewis said, adding that it just makes sense to have the convention center tied into the overall branding and marketing strategy, which is meant to attract a global audience to the area.
However, on Monday, members of the board expressed that they felt the decision was rushed into during the previous meeting and that the agenda did not specifically call for a vote on the name change.
“The agenda item was brand and marketing,” Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said. “Staff was looking for direction from us on how to proceed with that, and so sometimes what happens in meetings is motions are made when it was probably just better to have a discussion.”
Iverson said the hasty vote proved to be positive in some ways in that it brought public awareness to what was being discussed in regards to the convention center.
In addition to increased awareness, Iverson said he wanted the opportunity to explain that the vote was not a reaction to the current news cycle in regards to racism and the national movement to remove many Confederate monuments and memorials.
Nicknamed Utah’s “Dixie,” Washington County got the moniker when pioneer settlers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to grow cotton, much like in the southern part of the United States where slave ownership was common.
However, community members who spoke during the meeting maintained that the name “Dixie” in Southern Utah is not synonymous with slave ownership or racism but rather the hard work, blood, sweat and tears of their ancestors. A petition on Change.org titled “Keep ‘Dixie’ as the Name for Saint George” has over 16,000 signatures.
Commenters said changing the name of the convention center would have a trickle down effect and that they were worried it would have widespread consequences not related to the convention center.
Dixie Direct owner Tony Chambers spoke at the meeting and said that removing “Dixie” would likely impact his business and all the others that use the name. Fears were also addressed that a wider campaign might ensue to remove the painted “Dixie” from the Sugarloaf, the large white “D” on the ridge above Bluff Street and from Dixie State University.
Members of the board who were present – County Commissioners Iverson, Dean Cox and Gil Almquist, along with Smethurst and Lenhard – also addressed the audience members’ concerns as well as their own personal concerns, particularly in regard to teaching Southern Utah’s heritage in a meaningful way to tourists.
St. George Mayor and board member Jon Pike and hospitality industry representative Shayne Wittwer attended the meeting via electronic means and were also able to speak, though Pike did experience several technical difficulties and was unable to comment based on what he was able to hear.
Many of the board members are longtime residents of Southern Utah and said they share in what many call the “Dixie Spirit,” adding that they were glad to have the opportunity to dispel rumors and seek public input in regard to the name change.
That said, members of the board did express that the name change to Greater Zion reflected the overall focus of the branding efforts and that they never saw the June 23 vote as a strike against “Dixie.”
Only one attendee who spoke during the meeting spoke in favor of the name change.
Speaking on behalf of Greater Zion, Lewis said the “Dixie Spirit” is an integral part of what makes tourism successful in Southern Utah, the feeling tourists get when they come here.
“That’s what that ‘Dixie Spirit’ is,” he said, “something about this community that is really, really powerful.” He added that it is one component in the overall tourism product.
“It’s a really critical component. Without that, we don’t have the tourism product that we have,” he said.
Lewis said he is mindful of keeping that spirit alive and honoring our heritage, but it cannot be seen from far away; it has to be experienced when tourists arrive.
“What we’re trying to do is create a marketing message that invites them to come here that is welcoming and open to everybody,” Lewis said.
Ultimately the board decided to rescind last week’s vote and postpone the name change to allow Dixie Center staff and the tourism office to think about ways to incorporate a celebration of Southern Utah’s heritage into the convention center, including ways to educate convention center guests and to include the community in the decision making process.
Iverson said there will likely be more public meetings as things progress.
Dixie Center staff and Greater Zion tourism office representatives were instructed to return with their plan in six months.
“I respect the board’s decision,” Lewis said, “and I will do my best to put together a plan that helps invite people here from a welcoming perspective and helps invite them to feel that feeling when they get here.”
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