Advice from Moab’s mayor: Be careful what you wish for

As his final term ends, Dave Sakrison weighs the cost of decades of transformation.

 

When Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison entered local politics in the mid-1980s, the uranium industry was in steep decline. Mining had been the town’s primary employer, but the local uranium mill had filed for bankruptcy, and people were leaving town. “It was a pretty economically depressed era,” Mayor Dave, as he’s known around town, said recently. Someone had posted signs at both ends of town: Last person out, turn out the lights. “You could’ve shot a cannon off down Main Street,” he said, “and you wouldn’t have hit too much.”

Sakrison, who had been selling mining supplies, got into the video business, back when people still rented videotapes. He later bought what became Dave’s Corner Market, where he can often be found, making coffee and talking with the locals.

After 16 years as mayor, Sakrison will be replaced in January by Emily Niehaus, the founder of affordable housing nonprofit Community Rebuilds. Over more than three decades, Sakrison has both witnessed and actively contributed to making Moab the place it has become: a much visited, heavily Instagrammed destination whose popularity continues to grow with dizzying speed. When he first ran for city council, tourism — as a means to boost Moab’s economy after the mining downturn — was a key part of his campaign. “We live between two national parks,” he reasoned, in a scenic red rock area unique in all the world. “The obvious choice was, well, let’s try to promote tourism.”

It worked. “We’ve been very successful in bringing people to our community,” Sakrison said, his phrasing deliberately neutral and also a major understatement. In 1985, nearby Arches National Park saw fewer than 400,000 visitors. In 2016, that number topped 1.5 million. In total, it’s estimated that more than two million tourists now visit the town each year. A former director of the Moab Area Travel Council once described it as “Disneyland on dirt.”

A crowd gathers to watch the sunset at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah.

Sakrison spoke candidly about the costs of Moab’s tourism success. Reliance on a service economy means mostly low-wage jobs. Affordable housing is a huge and growing problem. AirBnB dealt an unforeseeable blow, and slick condo developments are popping up for overnight rentals only. A lot of the new housing is, as Sakrison put it, “not affordable for the average person who wants to work in this community.”

On any given weekend, the influx of visitors easily doubles or triples the town’s population of about 5,000. That’s strained the town’s services, from water and sewer infrastructure to police and fire departments. Hordes of adventure-bound ATVs rumble along Main Street, making so much noise that the town launched a “throttle down in town” campaign last year.

But Moab is not just a tourist destination. “This is a community first and foremost,” said Sakrison. Quality of life for residents motivated projects like the Mill Creek Parkway, a recreational path wending through downtown, and the Moab Recreation and Aquatics Center, which opened in 2011. Moab has always been “a Main Street kind of community,” noted Sakrison, with commercial development hewing closely to Route 191, the only major artery. Not so anymore: Moab never tightened up its zoning, and now, in what Sakrison lamentingly called the “general commercialization of the community,” development has crept into neighborhoods. It’s slid down the highway strip far past downtown.

Mallory Esquibel serves tourists at Moab Brewery, one of the town’s largest restaurants along Main Street.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Since the days of Edward Abbey, Moab’s increasing tourist traffic has produced curmudgeons: people who fall in love with Moab at a moment in time, who uneasily watch the throngs roll in and wax bitter and elegiac about how it used to be. But Mayor Dave is a different specimen: He has always been less concerned about the place Moab was than the place it is becoming. These days, Sakrison is somewhat contrite about what’s happened to his town. “There are things I wish we would’ve done a heck of a lot differently than we did,” he said. Recalling the way that he and others in Moab actively promoted tourism after uranium went bust, he warned, “You gotta be careful what you wish for.”

With Utah’s controversial Bears Ears National Monument garnering considerable attention, other southern Utah towns may look to Moab as an example — or a cautionary tale. The mayor of Blanding, a city with the motto “Base Camp to Adventure,” is a friend of Sakrison’s, and they often discuss that topic.

“I think I could write the book on becoming a tourist community,” Sakrison quipped. His advice comes down to planning, both in terms of zoning and simply thinking things through: “You’ve got to take a well-balanced approach to what you want to be,” he said. He feels Moab lost sight of that. “We haven’t done an adequate job of trying to expand or diversify the economy in any real substantial way,” he said.

When we spoke recently, Sakrison called back a few minutes after we’d hung up. “Let’s not forget the good things,” he said gently. He mentioned some of the benefits of tourism: the relative economic stability, the 60-year-old wastewater treatment plant finally getting redone along with other key infrastructure projects. “We’re replacing pipes now, we’re repaving streets,” he said. “We’re employing more people.” He’s also set his sights on a possible Utah State University satellite campus that’s been discussed for years, a project he will continue working on when he’s no longer mayor.

Mayor Dave Sakrison speaks at a press conference celebrating passage of Moab’s 100% Clean Energy Resolution and the installation of a new solar array at City Hall on Feb. 14, 2017.
Courtesy of the Sierra Club

But what Sakrison is most proud of is the relationship Moab residents have with the land. “We’ve tried to do things that enhance or maintain the beautiful place we live in,” he told me. The county-sponsored Trail Mix committee works with land management agencies to develop and maintain trails for mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians. Sakrison mentioned efforts by local groups like the motorcyclist-led nonprofit Ride With Respect to educate people about staying on trails to protect fragile desert lands. “We’re very sensitive to the environment,” Sakrison said, “and we want our visitors to enjoy and respect it.” 

Sakrison plans to remain engaged after his time as mayor ends, though he’s not yet sure how. He’s been advised, he told me with a laugh, to “learn how to say no.” But he cares deeply about Moab — and not in the way that visitors, who come craving red rock views or an adrenaline rush, do. “I love the people who live here,” he said, with clear sincerity. “I really want to see the best for this community.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial fellow at High Country News.