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?’”
A Whole New Face
Jai Wurfbain was born in Korea, raised in The Netherlands and worked in England as a hedge-fund manager before deciding to leave the fast-lane behind. Like so many others who have moved to Wasatch County in recent years, he discovered the beautiful mountain valley while on a ski trip to Park City. When he returned home, he bought a plot of land in Heber City on eBay. Less than a year ago, Wurfbain opened “The Spicy Lady” restaurant on the town’s Main Street.
With the theme of “travel the world from the comfort of your own plate,” the restaurant offers unique dishes Wurfbain picked up from street-cart vendors while traveling the world. He boasts it’s the only place in Utah where you can get a kangaroo steak. With a liquor license and a menu that includes Irish boxty (potato pancakes), Malaysian pork medallions and citrus pudding, the place is methodically geared toward tourists and second-home owners rather than valley natives.
“If anyone had told me 18 months ago I was going to run a restaurant in Heber City, I’d have slapped them,” Wurfbain says, laughing. But when “a strange Asian dude with a strong English accent” showed up, as he puts it, the city was “surprisingly proactive” in helping him get his venture off the ground.
Not that as a pro-growth advocate, he doesn’t have his criticisms and concerns for Wasatch County’s handling of the scene. “Managing growth is not the same as holding back growth,” he says with some frustration. “Growth is here and it’s coming. The traffic on Highway 40 has increased fivefold in the past three years. I can see the population here doubling within four years. We’re going to need some serious changes in infrastructure. That’s my biggest concern. There’s an old-boy network that’s still far too involved.”
Political leaders see themselves in control of the issue. They are quick to point out their communities will never go the way of Moab or Park City. The valley, they say, is taking charge of its own fate and becoming a tourist destination while still retaining its small-town charm and family values.
“I think people in Wasatch County as a whole generally don’t like Park City,” Davis says. “I don’t think Main Street in Park City fits into Midway very well. [Midway] isn’t too much of a swinging spot.”
Says Paul Kennard, Wasatch County Economic Development Director: “I think we need to remain us and not try to become another Park City. Our product here is much different. I think everybody has to stay true to themselves.”
The “true” Heber Valley was settled in the 1860s and 1870s by Swiss Mormon converts with names such as Gertsch, Huber, Kohler, Zenger and Probst. The settlers built a small and tightly knit agricultural community. But, over the past decade, everything has grown out of and beyond Park City, and the once-tranquil Heber Valley is no exception. Valley boosters hold firm to the notion that their community is far different from Park City, which makes its living off out-of-state skiers, snowboarders and Sundance Film Festival patrons, and has a history of being a non-Mormon mining town once stocked with bars and brothels.
“We have a very strong pioneer heritage,” points out Tish Dahmen, Communication and Marketing Manager for the Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce. “People who move here look for that pioneer element. I would say the feel is still predominantly LDS.”
However, if the descendants of the Mormon pioneers sell off the family land at a handsome price, which then is developed for towering second homes for East Coasters or exclusive resorts for West Coasters, the newcomers may not care for pioneer heritage as much as finding Indonesian glazed salmon and a lengthy wine list.
“The demographics are going to swing much more to what Park City is,” The Spicy Lady’s Wurfbain predicts. Which may, indeed, leave Main Street in Heber City looking a lot more like Main Street in Park City—a regular swinging place.
Take This Growth … Please
Even if Heber Valley remains true to its roots, there is still some question as to how much control the locals can exert over the growth process. “Outsiders” are falling in love with the place. No matter how responsibly the area comes by its growth, the inevitable challenges of size will show up: Housing for various income levels, road construction and maintenance, school construction, the general headaches of municipal infrastructure. Sometimes those issues can only be remedied through responding to growth, which then invites more growth. For example, major improvements are planned to deal with traffic in the Heber Valley and Highway 40 heading to Provo Canyon.
The improvements in Wasatch County are meant to help with growth, but as the U’s Bartholomew points out, “any time you increase a road out of a major area, it increases commuter traffic. Every time you improve a road, [you invite commuter traffic]. That’s what the real-estate market depends on.”
And sometimes things just don’t work out as planned. “Wal-Mart is a great example of that,” says County Manager Davis. “Two years ago, we did a study that said most people didn’t want it. Two years later, we’re building it.”
Even if Heber City and Midway were to rein in growth, the area of the Jordanelle Reservoir Basin could be “larger than Heber City ever dreamed of being,” says Dahmen of the Chamber of Commerce. Furthermore, Davis says, Wasatch County faces litigation from unincorporated areas that are pushing for incorporation to skirt open-space and zoning ordinances, usually with developers behind the push. “Investment groups want to do what they want to do,” he says.
Wasatch County, Heber City and Midway have all conducted surveys and sought community involvement, which indicates the top priority is to preserve open space. After all, if developers eat up that space, and take with it the natural beauty of the area, the area’s growth will destroy the very thing that attracted tourists, new development—and the associated tax windfall—in the first place.
And then the mantra starts sounding a lot like the one heard in Park City. Let Bartholomew repeat it: “Before long, people say, ‘It used to be nice, but now it’s overrun.’”
The local governments have passed open-space ordinances, and Midway even had a six-month moratorium on new projects in 2006 while it tried to sort out issues surrounding growth. Bartholomew applauds those measures, but says they would have been more effective far earlier. “What they needed some time ago was some sense of boundaries. If it had been possible 20 years ago, they should have tried to create urban growth.” But then, 20 years ago, locals were making fun of Fuller for building the condos presumably nobody wanted, smack in the middle of farmland.
Also at play in the valley is this tricky piece of the growth puzzle: People who benefit from the growth—transplants, tourists and new business owners—can be more anti-progress than the old-timers who can stand to cash in on the sale of their farm tracts. People who “discover” Heber Valley often want to be the last ones there and the first ones to close the doors to others.
“People come in and see the growth and complain, but they’re part of the problem,” says Midway Mayor Connie Tatton. “Change is difficult, not only for the old-timers, but the new residents who moved here for the pastoral setting and then they see it changing.”
Home Sweet Second Home
Along with the growth to feed its commercial tax base, the valley has also seen a flood of pricey second homes. Estimates are that close to 40 percent of new homes overall, and 50 percent in some developments, are vacation homes for people who don’t live in Wasatch County.
“I would say we have 45 percent second homes,” Tatton says. “That’s a big impact on a small community.” Her city has a current population of 2,500 that could swell to 17,000 if everything possible were built out. Tatton further notes that, thanks to all those second homes on large lots, land consumption is growing three times faster than the population.
“Tourism has less impact than second homes. No one in town knows they [the resorts] are full because the impact is so small.” And although Midway is trying to pass ordinances to regulate accommodations and a proposed resort for the area must go through several hearings, Tatton says that Heber City has most of the commercial land in the valley. So, therefore, “Thank goodness Midway has The Homestead and Zermatt.”
Kennard and Davis both say they would like to see more light or high-tech industry come to the valley to cut down on residents’ commute time. But tourism has its advantages, particularly given the money that can be raised through the transient room tax—which would go toward improving roads, water and sewer systems and other infrastructure.
“Tourism would be more favorable to the existing populace than a large industrial base,” Davis says. “It’s not a bad business. It’s clean, it generates income, and it has a low impact on schools.”
Dahmen points out that with The Homestead, Heber Creeper and outdoor opportunities, “Tourism has been a steady presence in this county for a very long time. The area has already accepted tourism.”
But tourists often end up being smitten by the area, and then they move in. Every time one of those tourists moves in, it subtracts affordable housing stock for hotel maids, cooks, groundskeepers and others who form the backbone of the local travel and tourism industry. As property values increased, the average home in Wasatch County is now three times higher than those along the Wasatch Front.
Before the Heber Valley took off, many people who worked in Park City hotels and restaurants lived in Wasatch County as an affordable alternative with a short commute. Heber Valley has benefited from that phenomenon because some of those people have brought the experience they gained in Park City hotels and restaurants. But now that Heber Valley is no longer affordable to the service-worker class, city officials are wondering if more workers will be forced to commute from Provo and Salt Lake City. And, with no mass transit available, the new growth poses another challenge.
A Change of Culture
Change in the Heber Valley will not only affect the size and number of buildings, but could also end up mixing up the conservative demographics generally found in rural and bedroom communities of Utah. The type of growth the Heber Valley is experiencing and may yet experience is rarely planned and seldom comfortable. “We are not a planning society by any means. We elevate other values and then submit to the consequences,” says Phillip Emmi, a professor at the University of Utah’s College of Architecture and Planning.”
As the Heber Valley moves forward in trying to deal with the increasing affections of the outside world and their consequences, Kennard says he is reminded every day, “It’s always a balancing act. I don’t care who you are or where you’re at. You have to make sure it’s reasonable and manage it the best you can.”