by Jim Stiles
(Editor’s note: Third in a four-part series.)
When Ashley Korenblat and the Utah Outdoor Business Network appeared before the San Juan County Commission last summer to pitch a dramatically expanded tourist/recreation economy, she explained it was “all about entrepreneurship.”
She talked about lost tourist dollars in San Juan County and lamented, if only “there were some incentive for them to stop here in Monticello...”
And there’s the rub.
Why DO tourists prefer to drive all the way back to Moab for the evening rather than stay or stop or even slow down when they zip through Monticello?
We all know the answer to that — it’s the amenities Moab has that Monticello doesn’t. It’s the plethora of motels and bed & breakfasts and restaurants and cafes and brew pubs and yupster bars and bike shops and bike rentals and zipline companies and climbing gear stores and BASE jumping guides and slackline parks and river companies and canyoneering companies and Adventure tours and Adventure motels and Adventure stores and curio shops and T-shirt shops and yoga shops and massage therapists and aquatic centers and private gyms and personal trainers and life coaches and nightly condo rentals and wineries and spas.
As the marketing people might say: “...and SO MUCH MORE.”
Monticello has a nice little grocery, perfectly suited for the population that now lives there, a fine mercantile store and a good drug store and several reasonably priced places to eat. It has a (relatively) new Maverik Store that serves soft-serve frozen yogurt. And its biggest tourist draw is the LDS mini-Temple.
In fact, Monticello lacks almost all of the ‘amenities’ that makes Moab, well, Moab.
To use the vernacular and marginalize a once significant and meaningful word, Moab is “Epic.” Monticello is not. It is Epic-less. Monticello is Epic-free. It lacks Epic-ness.
The question is, how badly does Monticello (and Blanding and all of San Juan County) want to be the next Totes Awesome New West town? Does it long to be Epic? Because when Ashley Korenblat talks about a more vibrant recreation economy in San Juan County, when she enthuses about the kinds of businesses that would encourage climbers from Indian Creek to turn south instead of north at the end of a thrill-packed day, this is what she means. It’s about transforming a rural Utah Mormon town into something more palatable to the same people who now make Moab their real “base camp to adventure.”
Like Moab, if Monticello is to change, it will be pushed by outside money. For the most part, its citizens don’t have the resources and capital to make huge investments in a massive makeover.
For example, the soon to be constructed multi-million dollar Four Corners School ‘Canyon Country Discovery Center’ was an idea first embraced by local citizens. But the money to make it happen won’t come from the local citizens.
Bill Boyle, one of the architects and supporters of the CCDC (and the Editor of the SJR), and I have had some lively conversations over the project these past few years.
I’ve come to regard Bill as one of my best friends and to appreciate the fact that he and I can have differences of opinion, express them freely, and without fear of the argument turning rancorous. The fact that you’re reading this essay in his newspaper is testament to that kind of open dialogue.
Years ago, Bill saw the Discovery Center as a way to help a floundering economy and add some diversification to the town’s business community. It’s a sentiment and an economic strategy often embraced in small rural western towns with shrinking populations and sliding economies.
What most proponents fail to grasp, until it’s too late, is that these kinds of economic infusions rarely help the citizens they are intended for. Economic development should primarily assist the people who already live in that town.
Chambers of Commerce should first and foremost be looking after their own, not seeking new competitors for their own members.
When a local debate broke out about the CCDC in 2012, some wondered if there weren’t a hidden agenda and questioned the motives of its executive director, Janet Ross. After all, she was once a SUWA board member herself.
Some insisted that her secret plan is to push a wilderness agenda that would restrict access to more public land. The San Juan Record’s Buckley Jensen responded, “Janet Ross is far more the shrewd fundraiser and businesswoman than she is the wild-eyed environmentalist bent on shutting down everything in San Juan County.”
Buckley is absolutely right. What few residents of southeast Utah realize, whether they are pro-wilderness or anti-wilderness, is that the issue of legislative ‘wilderness’ itself, in 2014, has little to do with some passionately held ‘cause.’
“Restricting access” is no longer a moral issue; it’s not an honest attempt to protect what remains of southeast Utah’s wildlands in order to spare it from future development and destruction. Wilderness is now about how it can make money for the people savvy enough to “invest” in it. It’s about replacing one kind of extractive economy with another. Wilderness IS money now and has little meaning to anyone beyond that.
As Ross said in 2012, the CCDC will, “produce an estimated potential Social Return on Investment of $9.8 MIL annually (based on the monetized social value of all teacher retention and renewal programs, student education/motivation programs, professional certification programs, workforce development/youth employment programs, and scientific research for San Juan County and the Colorado Plateau.”
Not much “wild-eyed” wilderness poetry in that statement.
“Clearly,” she concluded, “this facility will draw visitors to the City of Monticello and its businesses, and is meant to be an economic driver for all of us.”
In other words, Ross offers the Discovery Center as a financial opportunity to anyone who wants to climb aboard the fast-moving engine of a tourist/amenities economy.
It’s an engine that could be an integral part of transforming Monticello and San Juan County.
But whether it will benefit “all of us” is questionable. There is an assumption that visitors to the Discovery Center will require many more ‘amenities’ than Monticello can currently provide. The reality that goes with it is, if the local citizenry can’t provide them, the new amenities must predominantly come from elsewhere. And they will.
For the Discovery Center to become a reality, much of its funding comes from the same wealthy benefactors that keep organizations like the Grand Canyon Trust and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance flush with cash.
When the Four Corners School became an active participant and driver of the CCDC, Ross knew how to bring in money in ways other locals would never imagine. Recent major contributors, according to the CCDC’s web site, include billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, who sits on both GCT’s and SUWA’s board of directors. He has provided significant funding.
Venture capitalist David Bonderman, a billionaire who recently spent more than $10 million on his own 70th birthday party, added his own generous donation. He also sits on the board of directors of The Grand Canyon Trust and is a major SUWA financial backer.
Other multi-millionaires with roots in Moab and longtime supporters of mainstream green causes have tossed some of their largesse into the CCDC pot as well.
The list of Four Corners School/Discovery Center 2013 ‘gear sponsors’ sounds like a roll call of Outdoor Industry Alliance (OIA) members, including Adventure Medical Kits, All Terrain, Alpine Aire Foods, Backcountry.com, Black Diamond, Camelbak, Carhartts, Camp Chef, Clif Bar, Columbia, Crazy Creek, Don’t Go Nuts/Pinto Barn, Eureka, Falcon Guides, GSI, GU, Hanes/Duofold, Hi-Tec, Honeystinger, Hyalite, Jansport, Kahtoola, Katadyn, Keen, Kelty, LaraBar, Mountain House Foods, Mountain Khakis, Mystery Ranch, Osprey, Patagonia, Petzl, Princeton Tec, Polar Bottle, Red Ledge, Sea to Summit, Smart Socks, Smartwool, Stage, TEVA, Timberland, and Travel Chair.
Yet the letter that ignited the recent controversy over the “Greater Canyonlands” proposal was, in fact, from the OIA — a letter that Korenblat vainly tried to distance herself from when she addressed the commissioners.
The same people pushing the Greater Canyonlands plan are simultaneously dedicated to seeing CCDC work. Why? Is it possible to believe that billionaires like Hansjorg Wyss and David Bonderman or OIA sponsors like Black Diamond and TEVA have the best interests of rural San Juan County in mind and heart when they dump money by the truckload into this project?
No. What these benefactors want, and what most people who embrace a New West Amenities economy to fuel its future want, is the same kind of demographic change that happened in Moab. This is about changing the social fabric of a small town from one that is essentially rural and conservative to a more “progressive”/mainstream “green” New West population center. It’s that simple.
Next week: Finding consensus with Ed Abbey and Brigham Young.
(Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr – Planet Earth Edition” now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West.” Find both at www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Part 1: Moab is assimilated. Bike borg moves south. Is resistance futile in San Juan County
Part 2: Ashley Kornblatt’s Amenities Dream Scheme
Part 4: Finding consensus with Ed Abbey & Brigham Young