Twenty years ago, Dr. Robert Fuller decided to attempt a then-unheard of undertaking in sleepy little Heber Valley, some 50 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. He would build time-share condominiums there. As he was working on them one day, an old farmer drove by in his truck and stopped to ask Fuller what he was up to. Condos, Fuller told him. The old man laughed and asked, “Who do you think is gonna buy ’em?”
It was a reasonable question at the time. Park City, in neighboring Summit County, had the magnets of downhill skiing, a young and growing Sundance Film Festival and a burgeoning restaurant and club culture. In contrast, there were maybe four homespun reasons to make Wasatch County a destination point. You could visit The Homestead Crater, ride the Heber Creeper, throw out a fishing line on the Provo River or take in Swiss Days, Midway’s annual celebration of its town heritage. In short, the Heber Valley, settled by Swiss Mormon immigrants who were reminded when they looked at the surrounding mountains of the Alps back home, was the same quiet agricultural community it had been for decades.
It turned out a lot of people wanted to buy Fuller’s condos. Park City exploded with the construction of Deer Valley Resort and the international glitter of the whole Sundance thing. The 2002 Winter Olympics gave birth to Soldier Hollow, the venue for Nordic ski events. The awards and notice came flowing in as well—The Wall Street Journal’s Real Estate Journal and Parade Magazine have declared Wasatch County to be the best value for second homes; Money Magazine called it one of the 50 hottest little boomtowns; American Cowboy Magazine recently named it one of the Top 20 places to live in the West.
About 1.5 million people now pass through Wasatch County each year, pushing its resident population of just 22,000. Midway city officials still tout their summertime Swiss Days festival, which they say draws about 90,000 people over its weekend run. The area saw 33 percent growth between 2000 and 2006. The average home price in Wasatch County is $600,000 and more than 27,000 cars pass along Heber City’s Main Street each day.
On the Road to Moab?
While the rise in development has been phenomenal, Heber Valley isn’t just a run-of-the-mill small-town growth story about farmland getting plowed under for condos or people bickering about national big box chain stores. Heber Valley’s story is more about whether to fashion itself as an internationally known luxury tourist destination.
“I want to show off Utah,” says Fuller. “We have one of the most beautiful valleys in the world.
“Park City is a ski town and my concept was that we don’t have any destination resorts [in Midway]. I wanted one property where you can stay, play and eat.”
To that end, Fuller opened the $95-million Zermatt Resort and Spa in Midway about 18 months ago. It caters to high-end corporate clients by offering 25,000-square feet of space for business meetings and company retreats backed by more than 200 luxury hotel rooms, 100 condo units, an 11,000 square-foot great hall and a spa spanning three floors of the hotel. Zermatt is a major addition to the Heber Valley, but it’s hardly the only inroad into travel and tourism in the area. The Homestead Resort, which opened to the public on a much smaller scale in 1886 and touted the healing powers of its mineral baths, is across the road from Zermatt. Purchased by national chain Great Inns of the Rockies in 1986, The Homestead is planning to expand. High-end boutique hotels such as the Blue Boar Bed and Breakfast are offering accommodations, and unique restaurants are popping up that couldn’t have been imagined just a few years ago.
The Snake Creek Grill features Culinary Institute of America-trained executive chef/owner Dean Hottle putting together a menu with eclectic local cuisine such as Morgan Valley lamb and blue-cornmeal-encrusted red trout. Valley officials estimate that tourism provides 20 percent of the local economy and is growing at a faster rate than the population.
Its natural beauty and booming development are indisputable. The accelerated growth could lead the area to become the next Moab or Park City—sidewalks mobbed with tourists, jammed-up restaurants and runaway numbers shops selling T-shirts and kitsch.
So the decision Heber Valley must make—better now than much later—is inevitable. Does Heber Valley want to be Moab? Or, more precisely, how much control does it have in opting out of that scenario? It’s no longer possible to say “no more growth,”—as if that were ever a choice to begin with, says Wasatch County Manager Mike Davis. He notes, “There are certainly people who would like the growth to stop, but the reality is the court system can get around ordinances to stop growth.”
Keith Bartholomew, Assistant Professor of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah, puts a finer point on it: “The question with growth is not, ‘Can you shut it down?’ but, ‘Can you make it behave?’”