Feature | Swiss Miss: Sleepy little Heber Valley yearns and yodels for a city-girl image 

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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.

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