Destination Heber Valley

This past October marked my 20th year as a full-time resident and local businessperson of the Heber Valley. The changes over the past two decades in the Heber Valley will likely represent the most drastic pivot in our community’s history. With this milestone in mind, I find myself romanticizing the literal ‘History in the Making’ that I have observed during my time in the Heber Valley.

In October 2003, the vibe in the Heber Valley was still a bit of a 2002 Olympic hangover. The community had expected a massive change in growth and property value in the wake of the Olympic games, and it had become apparent that it wouldn’t happen as anticipated. The community was fractionally the size that it is today. Heber City was limited between South Fields Road and Mill Road, 500 N to the Crow’s foot on South Main. There was a buzz about the ‘massive’ new development called Timp Meadows that stretched Heber City from the traditional boundary of 500 E eastward to Mill Road, connecting the homes in Valley Hills in the north to Center Street in the south. This controversial development effectively coined ‘Old Town’ Heber by its construction. Timberlakes was so distant that it might as well have been in another county, and there was very little, aside from random farm properties, between the Heber Valley’s eastern bench and Heber City limits. Interlaken, Hideout, and Independence did not exist as townships. Mainly generational residents still populated Daniel, Charleston, and Wallsburg, and if you lived there, you likely knew everyone in town on a first-name basis. Midway had just started to spill outside the historical limits of the city with communities such as Dutch Fields, Valais, and Pine Canyon Road. Several cabins were up on the western bench, up Snake Creek Canyon, and the resort community northwest of the town was established, but that was about the extent of the population. Fracking was not a financially viable means of gas and oil extraction, so there was minimal truck traffic on US Highway 40 between Vernal and the SLC refineries. You could make left turns without the aid of a traffic signal on Heber Main Street. There was a healthy (and somewhat bitter) rivalry between Wasatch and Park City High School, and the teams competed against each other regularly. The Provo River Restoration Project was only 25% complete and had just started construction south of the Bunny Farm (River Road). Fishing pressure was minimal. Deer Valley Resort still had a celebrity country club reputation, and most locals avoided skiing there because they did not want to be perceived as an intermediate-ability tourist skier. I was introduced to the Heber Valley with that Olympic-era wave of move-ins and, having been western Colorado-based for just shy of a decade prior, thought I had landed in a ‘pre-John Denver’ time warp to a literal mountain paradise.

Moving forward to 2023, the growth phenomenon predicted during the excitement of the 2002 Olympic Games has become a reality. Many have become outraged about the recent development trend in our community. This growth has been anticipated for decades. Utah’s growth is several decades behind similar western states, such as Colorado. The Utah growth trend started to gain momentum in 2006, which was stifled by the economic recession beginning in 2009. We have seen consistent year-over-year growth in the Heber Valley since 2013. The ‘work from home’ trend has accentuated the growth curve of recent years. One of the only variables that historically kept destination resort populations from exploding across the globe is the lack of financial opportunity at those locations. When one can work virtually — the option to live anywhere with internet service opens up.

Heber Valley citizens must maintain two principles if we are to sculpt the community into its best possible outcome. The first is a grounded understanding and acceptance of the relationship between growth and decay. Secondly, we must accept an implementable vision compatible with the demands of who we are and what we want to become.

My hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri, is a prime example of what can happen to a community when there is a lack of vision for growth or redevelopment. Saint Louis was once proudly touted as “The Gateway to the West.” The location was a hub of commerce for the westward expansion movement and carried a larger economy than Chicago, respectfully, at that time. Saint Louis hosted the World Fair in 1904, and was showcased as one of the greatest American cities for the world to observe. The city’s first significant error was siding with the riverboat trade instead of the railroad. Nevertheless, a sustainable growth trend held its course for decades. The city attracted business due to its centralized location in the nation. It became a hub for aviation. Certain populist social trends began to become policies in the late 1970’s. These policies effectively drove business away, first from the city center and then from the region. If you visit Saint Louis today, the downtown district is narrowly maintained by the support of professional sports teams, some riverfront bars, and a federally maintained national monument. Downtown’s appearance outside the ‘tourism district’ is that of a third-world nation. All growth has been pushed to the outside edges of the county for decades because the policies downtown have become so prohibitive that nobody wants to locate there. The net result is a dilapidated city center that has significant crime and poverty issues directly related to a general lack of opportunity. If a historic community is going to survive, it has to accept the correlation between economic growth and decay and create policies that encourage a healthier long-term outcome.

The Heber Valley once had a thriving economy and was a destination getaway for residents of the Wasatch Front. This is why Heber City Main Street was once filled with drive-in restaurants and motels, and Midway with quaint nightly rentals. Our economic downturn happened in coordination with the recession of the 1970s, the improvement of the Provo Canyon highway, and shopping malls being developed in Utah County. Having ‘given up’ on the viability of local businesses, our city officials believed we could be nothing more than a bedroom community, regardless of the long-term economic implications associated with that status. They needed to service resident commuters — hence the fast food, auto part store trends, and welcoming of franchised chains that could offer outside economic subsidies to sustain a Heber location. Jobs in local government seemed to be the only way to support oneself within Wasatch County limits throughout those years. Over time, our civic visions ultimately become a reality. This is why it is so important for a community to understand and align on a logical and implementable vision.

My professional role in the Heber Valley has allowed me to be at many discussions over visioning for the future. We have so many incoming opportunities to be grateful and excited about. However, the identity issue for most of the HV is still under considerable debate. This fact, coupled with in-progress commercial developments and the inevitable international attention that will accompany them, gives me a bit of ‘marketing heartburn.’ Still, I respect the process and welcome the discourse that comes with varied opinions. Our higher elevation identity problem is that we have so much to offer that it is difficult for our strong-willed population to unify on a single path to travel. While there are many identity assets to focus on, I would like to riff on one particular variable, given the season and circumstances.

An undeniable and overlooked identity asset that Heber Valley has, and one that most communities would sacrifice greatly to claim, is that we are a Winter Olympic destination with an active facility and quickly becoming the hub for cross-country skiing and biathlon in the United States. US Biathlon relocated this autumn to Soldier Hollow from New Gloucester, Maine. Soldier Hollow will be the only US destination for the International Biathlon Union World Cup competition in March 2024. These events fill grandstand stadiums in Europe and are consummate sporting event parties. The discipline of biathlon exemplifies the “I’m big in Europe” t-shirt and is dramatically overlooked by US citizens. What could be more ‘American’ than guns, strength, speed, and technical excellence? We are societally missing the target on this winter sport. Biathlon is the only Winter Olympic discipline the US has never medaled, which needs to change. We must also remember that our local venue will likely host another Olympic event in 2030 or 2034. The Soldier Hollow Nordic Center facility is regularly used for training by, quite literally, the top Nordic athletes in the world, including our own US ski team. The Heber Valley is an internationally recognized winter sports destination. I challenge the Heber Valley citizens to unify on this one simple thing: learn about the Nordic disciplines and support the IBU World Cup event at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center this March. The world will be watching. Let’s show them all we know a thing or two about throwing a party.

I love the Heber Valley. This fact is the predominant reason Heber Valley Life magazine exists. If you have taken the time to read or analyze this note, I hope you have learned a little bit about our past, and can more actively participate meaningfully in directing future growth. Better yet, if you appreciate the effort we invest every quarter to publish this collection of articles, please consider a financial sponsorship in the book or through a purchase in our online store. These little tokens, by our community, for our community, keep the project alive. Please enjoy our winter 2023 edition of Heber Valley Life magazine.

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