The Canyon Inn: In Your Face | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Canyon Inn: In Your Face 

In the shadow of a proposed $59 million development, a Cottonwood Heights bar owner stands his ground against DUI-driven cops.

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It’s after 11 p.m. on a Saturday night in early April in Cottonwood Heights. Driving his beige truck down a four-lane street from his bar, Canyon Inn owner Jim Stojack is on “harassment” patrol.

He drives 24 blocks west on Fort Union Boulevard to the Cottonwood Heights Police Department and turns into its parking lot at 1300 East, his headlights shining on the unoccupied police trucks and chargers. Then he turns around and heads back up the boulevard, as the strikingly large American flag in front of Whole Foods ripples in the night sky.

The Canyon Inn sits at the intersection of Fort Union and Wasatch Boulevard, the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon opening just across the street. Ever since Jim and Kim Stojack say Las Vegas-based mortgage broker and property investor Kevin Gates threatened to have Cottonwood Heights City force them to sell their business four years ago—allegedly so Gates could build a substantive entrance to the land he owns directly behind and above the Canyon Inn—the Stojacks family, as well as the Canyon Inn’s employees and customers, have been subject to what they claim amounts to harassment by some local police officers. Gates denies any such claims.

On what were the bar’s busiest nights—Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays—over the past several years, Stojack has taken to driving Fort Union late at night with a video camera in hand, documenting for media or possible legal action, he says, how around closing time the police stir from their lair to descend upon unwary drinkers leaving his bar. From 11 p.m. to 12.30 a.m., there’s not a police car to be seen.

With each trip that Saturday night along Fort Union, Stojack sees the relatively few customers’ cars parked at his bar, due to the active police presence, he argues. “You’d think that [the tax dollars paid by customers] would mean something to Cottonwood Heights,” he tells a City Weekly reporter along for the ride. Three years before, he says, not only would his parking lot be packed with cars, but also the Utah Transit Authority Park & Ride on the other side of Wasatch Boulevard and the gravel frontage across Fort Union. “This is depressing,” he says, referring to the scattered cars outside his bar. “That doesn’t pay bills.”

Then, after 12.30 a.m., the first sleek Cottonwood Heights police charger glides past. Officers call Fort Union Boulevard “the golden mile,” Stojack says. Why it’s golden might have something to do with the dramatic uptick in DUI arrests since the Cottonwood Heights Police Department was formed in September 2008. Comparing Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office DUI arrest numbers with those of the Cottonwood Heights Police, both obtained through records requests, shows that Sheriff’s officers made 58 DUI arrests in 2006 and 54 in 2007. Astonishingly, between September 2008 and December 2010, Cottonwood Heights Police racked up 527 DUI arrests. But Stojack alleges DUIs aren’t all the police are interested in. As he drives up and down Fort Union, the tension in his face becomes increasingly evident. He says he expects a police officer to either pull him over or attempt to intimidate him. Just before 1 a.m., an officer obliges.

A Cottonwood Heights Police truck coming from the opposite direction passes by him, slams on the brakes, spins around and comes up behind him in the far right lane. Stojack repeatedly glances in the rear-view mirror. Suddenly, the truck, without its emergency lights on, speeds up, passes him in the inside right lane, races past, then cuts in front, forcing Stojack to hit the brakes, seemingly inches away from colliding with the truck before it flies into a side street.

The angry, scared bar owner gives a shuddering sigh. “They do it to mess with me,” he says. “I just want to get out of this alive.” The years of alleged harassment have had an impact on his wife’s health and their marriage, frightened his children and, last year, almost closed his business, forcing him, he says, to use his savings to cover payroll.

Cottonwood Heights part-time Mayor Kelvyn H. Cullimore Jr. (pictured at right) sits calmly in the board room of publicly traded medical-equipment business Dynatronics, where he is chairman and CEO. He’s heard complaints from Stojack about the police dating back to his first months as mayor in 2005. He doesn’t think the officer in the truck intentionally tried to run Stojack off the road. Maybe “he was on the way to another call, he cut a little too close. I don’t find [Stojack’s interpretation] credible,” Cullimore says. Stojack has alleged that Gates and Cullimore have business links outside the state, something City Weekly was unable to substantiate. Such allegations, Cullimore says, “have no basis in fact. That’s got to go to his credibility.”

At the heart of this murky saga stand two implacable forces. One is a confrontational bar owner who claims municipal forces are conspiring with financial interests to steal his business. The other is a police department whose zealous commitment to DUI arrests is such that some argue it bleeds into darker territory. Neither side, it seems, will back down. Feeding into this shoving match are the ever-evolving ambitions of a developer and a mayor whose vision of the future for the seven square miles of Cottonwood Heights, pressed up against the east bench of the Wasatch mountains, is to develop it from a bedroom community into a self-sustaining city.

The city’s incorporation, recalls Mayor Cullimore, was in part driven by residents wanting more control over development issues. Cullimore says the contentious Canyon Centre development, which will include two high-end hotels with over 200 guest rooms, two class A office buildings and two restaurants, could well provide an upscale identity for Cottonwood Heights that Cullimore, for one, would like to see his community achieve. “It’s part of our gateway,” Cullimore says. The upscale $59 million development, which hinges on local tax entities agreeing to channel future tax revenues from the development to a parking structure and some infrastructure improvements, will be “remarkable,” he says, although “what’s remarkable to me may be something someone else curses.”

But there is a huge fly in the Canyon Centre’s ointment: The land has neither frontage on Fort Union—which is currently occupied by a 7-Eleven, Canyon Inn, ski-rental company The Lifthouse, Porcupine Grill and an office building—nor easy access to its property. Cullimore says the frontage of the development overlooking Wasatch Boulevard will “provide more than adequate visibility.” Porcupine Grill co-owner Bryan O’Meara scratches his head. “Ultimately, their project does not have a storefront. How can you spend $60 million without a storefront?”

O’Meara shares Stojack’s concerns that without a storefront or a dramatic entrance from Fort Union, the developers and the city, both gung-ho for their vision of a high-end mix of hotels and offices, see the Canyon Inn and Porcupine Grill as literally being in the way of their ambitions. O’Meara says the developers told him and his partner, Byron Loveall, that an uncooperative Canyon Inn might well be dealt with by Cottonwood Heights, implying, O’Meara believes, the use of eminent domain. He also cites the developers’ bullying tactics as the reason his group decided to buy the building housing their popular restaurant to ensure their future.

Gates bought the 11-acre Canyon Racquet Club property behind Stojack’s 63-year-old bar in May 2006 for an undisclosed sum from Snowbird resort. Gates’ longtime business allies are the affable and politically savvy Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless and Utah senator and majority whip Wayne Niederhauser, who jointly own CW Management Corporation.

On December 31, 2010, Gates sold the property to McCandless and Niederhauser, although he will still be a key player in the development. One of the office buildings will probably house his iFreedom mortgage business, which is currently located on Foothill Boulevard. “Hopefully, I will be a major tenant and a major part of this development,” Gates says. He is bemused by the accusations that froth around the edges of a property for which building permits have yet to be filed. “It’s just too early for people to be screaming,” he says.

Not if you’re Stojack, who recently made the news by commissioning for a wall on his property a well-publicized lurid mural that jabs at the Catholic and LDS churches, while also making a veiled allusion to his belief that local officers are working for the developer to close him down. Inevitably, the mural only escalated police interest in him, Stojack says. “Jim accomplished his goal of more free publicity,” Cullimore says wearily.

click to enlarge canyoninn_fullmural.jpg

Cullimore says Stojack is paranoid. “He shoots from the hip and talks in shades of anecdotes.” But, as Canyon Inn bartender Brian Bicknell quips, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

After Stojack came to Utah for a ski vacation, the former operations manager for multinational United Technologies Corporation bought the Canyon Inn in 1991 for $800,000 from its former owner, an airline pilot. Stojack’s work at UTC, an important defense contractor, “wasn’t for the greater good of man,” says the 58-year-old, quick-speaking, abrasive Chicagoan. The Canyon Inn featured country music “and the best steaks in the valley,” Stojack recalls. When a policeman told him “wherever there’s country music, there’s fights,” he brought in a rock band called Under the Gun for six weeks, stocked the bar with the “cheapest drinks in the valley,” and never looked back. Until, that is, May 2006, when Gates purchased the Canyon Racquet club and demolished the swimming pool and sports complex, leaving only a few trees in its wake.

Despite the lack of a wide entrance for traffic and an exit directly into a residential street, Gates says, “I felt like I was buying the property at a good-enough price that I could put a car lot or apartments in there,” and that lack of ingress and egress would not be an issue. Gates and an architect explored different scenarios for developing the old Canyon Racquet property, including doing a “Main Street,” Park City-style, he says, “but the fault lines” that run through the property “limited us.”

In early 2007, Stojack says, he fielded several interested buyers for his bar. One tire kicker, he says, was Kevin Gates. The Stojacks say Gates offered $1.2 million for the property, which they viewed as a paltry sum. Gates says no terms were discussed.

As they sat out on the Canyon Inn’s front patio, Gates promised to build the couple a nice, high-end restaurant. After Stojack declined, Kim recalls Gates telling her to have her husband reconsider, “or else I’ll have Cottonwood Heights do the dirty work.”

“Jim operates on an emotional level,” says Porcupine’s O’Meara. After O’Meara and Loveall in 2006 bought the ailing Chinese restaurant that they subsequently turned into The Porcupine, tensions between the highly successful restaurant’s owners and the Canyon Inn led to a “fractious” relationship, O’Meara says, over, among other things, shared parking. But when Gates arrived on the scene, O’Meara says, “there was a new bad guy in town [and] our relationship improved dramatically.”

O’Meara was willing to talk to the developers on the basis of a “win-win” for the developers and Porcupine Grill. The possibility that Gates and McCandless came back with, O’Meara says, was an architectural drawing that showed their restaurant replaced by a grand entrance into the development from Fort Union, with the Porcupine placed on top of a three-story office building fronting the boulevard. “It was basically like closing us down,” O’Meara says. What he sees as the developers’ intimidation tactics allegedly worsened when, O’Meara recalls McCandless saying, “if there was nothing going on with the Canyon Inn [in way of negotiations], they could have the city take care of the bar. We understood that to mean eminent domain.” McCandless says if he did make such a remark, it was taken out of context and he apologizes.

pick-up zone has replaced Canyon Inn, Porcupine Grill and The Lifthouse
The Porcupine owners decided to buy the building housing their restaurant and, O’Meara says, paid “a substantial price to make that deal happen,” to ensure their survival. Shortly after the deal was concluded, the developers came back with even more disturbing architectural plans that replaced Porcupine Grill, Canyon Inn and the Lifthouse with a “Kiss” & Ride drop-off lot and a bus loading zone. A UTA spokesman said there were no plans for a bus drop-off at that location, nor had there been any discussions.

Mayor Cullimore dismisses concern over the plans “as a bunch of speculation. Nobody talked to us.” O’Meara says the plans “scared us. We thought the power was pointing toward us.” Now it wasn’t just Cottonwood Heights municipal authorities who were possibly facing them, but also the Utah Transit Authority, which has eminent domain among its arsenal of development weapons. “We felt threatened, that we were being run over,” O’Meara says. But when the developers learned, he says, they had purchased their building, their tactics “toned down.” All along, O’Meara says, he and his partner have sought to keep communication lines open with the developer, to be “a good neighbor.” He doesn’t feel that good will has been reciprocated. “The mentality here is, ‘what’s good for them, they’re the important ones.’ ”

McCandless says the sketches “were exploration, normal sketch stuff,” reflecting years of developed and discarded ideas about the property. Gates denies any attempt at intimidation. “I don’t have time to intimidate people, I really don’t,” he says. “I never meant to leave them out or have them feel insecure.” He feels the Porcupine Grill’s owners “wanted to buy a restaurant site [on the development] but did not want to pay the money it was worth.”

While the Porcupine Grill’s concerns over the developers’ plans eased to some degree, Canyon Inn—which, Stojack recalls, was ironically in the 1990s a favorite hang-out bar for off-duty cops—found itself the focus of increasing attention from several officers in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office in 2007. Stojack says in the run up to the transition to Cottonwood Heights Police Department, which opened its doors in September 2008, attention from authorities, such as going through the bar in uniform and kicking open bathroom stalls, only got worse.

According to the Canyon Inn’s incident log, from September 2007 on, there were escalating visits from Sheriff officers, the Stojacks complaining of officers repeatedly entering their parking lots and their establishment, often for flimsy reasons, scaring away customers and even blocking the entrance/exit to the bar’s parking lot simply to make a social call or, more justifiably, while having a DUI suspect perform field-sobriety tests.

Stojack fought back, videotaping police trucks and cars when they appeared near his bar. Kim Stojack manages the bar at night. She says one officer, on May 29, 2010, complained to her about her husband’s videotaping of officers and asking for their business cards. She says the officer told her, “It was no one’s business what we are doing here.” The officers felt unsafe when Stojack was filming them. Kim rolled her eyes. “Give me a break. Your guys have guns and Tasers. I’m in flip-flops and a sundress.” The officer told her, she recalls, “He cannot help where people pull over, and sometimes it just happens to be in the Canyon Inn parking lot.”

Cottonwood Heights’ Police Chief Robbie Russo declined to be interviewed for this story, citing previous newspaper and TV attention to Stojack’s complaints that the police were driving away his business by aggressively targeting his customers as they left the bar. Cullimore says City Weekly printing Stojack’s anecdotal evidence of his police harassment would be “irresponsible.”

O’Meara feels “there’s a natural tendency for the police to look at [the Canyon Inn] as the nemesis of the community.” He sees “a larger degree of Jim’s patrons being pulled over. Our employees, leaving after midnight, have been randomly pulled over for very small infractions.”

Critics of Cottonwood Heights Police DUI enforcement include attorney Tyler Ayres. “Their DUIs are weak, to the say the least,” he says. “A lot are under the legal limit [of .08] with no driving pattern,” but rather stemming from minor infractions such as no license plate light or mud flaps. “Any superficial reason they can come up with,” he says.

The Sandy-based attorney says in contrast to the six or so DUI clients he would get a year when Salt Lake County’s Sheriff’s office patrolled Cottonwood Heights, now he averages two clients a month. Pull out of a pub in Cottonwood at 4 p.m. with no mud flaps, he says, and you won’t have a problem. Around last call, “it’s a guarantee,” he says, you’ll be pulled over. “Their DUIs have an agenda,” he continues. But whether it’s caused by a conspiracy over development or as a means to add revenue from fines to the city’s coffers, he says, “I don’t think it’s appropriate they are writing more and more DUIs at a time when we have the lowest number of vehicle fatalities from drunken-driving” in many years.

Kim Stojack says Cottonwood’s DUI enforcement around her bar has affected her health and her marriage. She’s afraid to come to work and is tired of “crying myself to sleep, enduring headaches, depression and the control [the police] have over us.” Her husband, who had focused on being a stay-at-home dad to raise his children, had to start working at the bar during the day, cooking pizzas to try and build up their lunchtime business. Jim Stojack spends all his time “trying to investigate [the development] himself.” Where once he was outgoing, “now he’s quiet, serious, he snaps, gets mad easier.”

Cullimore says he likes Stojack. “But he makes the wildest speculations.” Stojack feels the city isn’t listening to him, Cullimore says. The mayor’s invited Stojack to provide evidence of any of his allegations, but says the bar owner has yet to do so.

Cullimore points out that the Utah Highway Patrol patrols Wasatch Boulevard. “We did research, we demonstrated to Jim that there is not a focus on him.” Cottonwood Heights does not “make efforts to target those citizens” who go to bars, “but we do take DUIs very seriously.” A map of DUI arrests by Cottonwood Heights Police officers between September 2008 and December 2010 obtained by a records request shows that arrests are spread all along Fort Union Boulevard, major arteries feeding into it and Wasatch Boulevard.

Along with videotaping officers, taking photographs and patrolling the street from 11 p.m. onward, video camera in hand, Jim Stojack has sought out media publicity and, for the first time in 20 years, advertised, bringing in a new, younger crowd to replace his older regulars. But every time officers pull someone over outside his bar or in his parking lot, his night’s receipts inevitably take a hit.

Such is his anger, Stojack commissioned graffiti artist Kier Defstar to paint a mural on a wall in his parking lot. It’s a vivid representation of everything Stojack loves and hates about Utah. Along with terrified Catholic altar boys, a LDS temple surrounded by flames and a buxom blonde mountain climbing, the left side of the mural features a police car with the taunting license plate, CRPT-1S, alleging corruption, because, Stojack says, he believes, while Cottonwood Heights Police has many good officers, “a handful of cops are working for the developer.”

If it were Cottonwood Heights’ intention to get rid of the Canyon Inn, Cullimore says, “why would we include him in the [Community Development Area]? Now his property is protected, as he is immune to any eminent domain.”

But even the council-approved Community Development Area [CDA] bond, which developer McCandless and Cullimore say would improve chronic parking problems in the area and is essential for the development they would both like to see go forward, has quickly accrued controversy. The CDA will siphon off $15 million of the Canyon Centre’s future property tax money into infrastructure improvements by the city. Around $7 million may go to loan-interest payments, the remaining $8 million being spent on a half-buried 438-stall garage, which the public would have partial access to, and a park. Without the CDA, the proposed $59 million development will not take place, McCandless says. Instead it will morph into an $18 million “community of mixed-use development. It’s that simple.”

Two Cottonwood Heights residents, Mark Machlis and William McCarvill, members of a 2-year-old local-government watchdog group called CH Voters, call this “bad public policy.” They feel the developers are trying to hoodwink the city into giving them a free parking lot.

They argue the developers deliberately made the $18 million alternative look so unappealing that the community will have no choice but to support the original proposal and the CDA. “Taxpayers are subsidizing a healthy development and a healthy developer with a private garage,” McCarvill says. Those who will have to decide if they want to take a hit over the next 25 years by not receiving the taxes the development would generate include the Canyons School District and the local library and recreation center.

Porcupine Grill and Canyon Inn say they have both opted out of the CDA, although Cullimore says until Stojack informs him of that, “he is in it. I would think Jim would welcome the CDA because it can help bring thousands of people to his back door,” Cullimore says. He’s referring to CDA money, assuming there is some left after the parking structure, being used to develop access between the CDA-covered businesses on Fort Union and the development. “There’s not been anything we presented that’s threatened them,” Cullimore continues. “There isn’t a business along there we hope doesn’t stay and benefit from this.”

While Cullimore imagines that one day light rail will come up Fort Union to the mouth of the canyon and the gravel pit on Wasatch Boulevard will evolve into a striking multi-use development, Stojack’s dream is, as the mayor correctly surmises, to sell his business, but for a good price. “I want to sell the bar, get rid of it, but I’m trapped,” Stojack says. But as he patrols Fort Union late at night, he wonders, “When will this ever end?” He is so convinced the forces of law are out to get him that he has a hair follicle test done every three months, in case the police try to frame him with drugs.

Cullimore says he told the police department if they were singling out someone to stop, but Chief Robbie Russo assured him that was not the case. The mayor argues Stojack’s complaints have made his police department more cautious as to how they have handled the bar. “There was a certain sensitivity about whatever they do being mischaracterized by the guy.” That’s changed. “We’re going to start doing bar checks again,” the mayor says.

A week after the mural was completed, Kim Stojack says chief Russo paid his first visit to the bar. After he viewed the mural, he and two other officers came in. Stojack says Russo told her that he was doing a bar check and was there “to make his presence known.” She says he told her, “You can expect to see us up here more often.”

In the seven days after Russo’s appearance, his officers made good on their boss’s promise. Two days later, Stojack says Cottonwood Heights Police Sgt. Scott Peck parked his police car in his lot for two hours, doing reports. When Stojack asked him to leave, Peck refused. Two employees were pulled over in separate incidents and when Stojack left a restaurant with his children, a passing police car turned around and followed them home.

The Stojacks’ 13-year-old daughter, Abbie, recalls witnessing officers tailgate her and her father home on repeated occasions. At 6 a.m. the Sunday morning after Russo’s bar check, Abbie was awakened by noises in the family’s front garden. She peeked out the window and saw uniformed police looking into her father’s truck with flashlights. “I was scared,” she says. When Stojack asked what they wanted, he says they inexplicably asked if his neighbors were home. “They were probably just harassing us,” Abbie says.

While Cullimore might dismiss such claims as more examples of Stojack’s paranoia, the 10 seconds witnessed by a City Weekly reporter that it took an unknown officer to all but run Stojack off the road that early April night might suggest otherwise. Whether Stojack’s take-no-prisoners attitude helped feed the fight he now finds himself in or whether there are sinister forces at work, it is clear at least one officer in Cottonwood Heights has a disregard for Stojack’s life.

In this ongoing fight, Abbie Stojack’s innocence is also a victim. She doesn’t trust the police, she says, and “would never go to one for help.” Stojack tells her that, as in all walks of life, there are good and bad cops.

“No,” she says. “I think they are all bad.”

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