The other is a conservative, stable, small city that has an extensive network of trails connecting schools, neighborhoods, and parks, and a civic hub including a new city hall and library, an arts and recreation center, and other public amenities.
Of course, the two are interconnected. It's those who live full-time in Moab who, in large measure, provide the workforce that keeps the resort industry humming. And it's those who visit and vacation in Moab who keep the city thriving.
Moab is set in a spectacularly beautiful part of Utah -- justifiably famous for its canyonlands. In the morning I had the chance to visit Arches National Park with my wife Lila, who has joined me for the last ten days of my cross-country trip. The results of nature's forces in carving out and eroding various kinds of sandstone -- and the towering column & arch-like formations left standing -- is truly amazing. Here's just a sampling of what we saw.
The Colorado River also flows through the canyons, providing river-related adventures for tourists. I wouldn't be surprised if in the Moab area there were a hundred different recreational options a visitor could choose from.
Over lunch, I heard about the challenges Moab is facing in dealing with its growing status as a destination resort. And I'm emphasizing the word "destination" since it was emphasized to me several times during our discussion. David Olsen, the city's community development director set up the lunch-time conversation. Joining us were (from left to right in the photo) planning commissioner Wayne Hoskisson; city engineer Dan Stenta; zoning administrator Sommar Johnson (a life-long Moab resident); David Olsen; city manager Donna Metzler; and planning commissioner Kara Dohrenwend.
Donna described the changing nature of Moab as a tourist destination. She noted that "Moab is changing into a destination resort community, with many second or third home owners." Development proposals are becoming increasingly complex, with applications sometimes being filed by large investment firms. Kara concurred, noting that a few years ago, the planning commission was dealing with relatively straightforward subdivision requests. Now, applications are much more complex, and harder to evaluate under the city's older zoning provisions.
One project we spoke about is a 178 acre mixed use development in a sensitive area just outside the city limits. See photo below of the site of this project. As Donna noted, "this kind of development is completely new to the city." City staff and planners have been negotiating a pre-annexation agreement that includes special zoning provisions. In fact, the city's new "master plan development process" emerged as a result of the complexity of the new developments, and the fact that they're hard to evaluate under the exisitng zoning code.
The new process provides greater flexibility (enabling developments that would otherwise not comply with local zoning), while giving the city a greater opportunity to ensure that the development "fits" into Moab in an environmentally sound way. As Kara put it, "more flexibility in exchange for more rigorous review."
One problem is that the review process is very time-intensive for both staff and the planning commission. Kara told me that meetings are now held at least twice a month, and can stretch from 6 to 10 pm. And "developments are coming at us so fast, we don't have time to deal with long-range planning ... we're reacting to what comes in," she added.
[photo above: another new subdivision in an area that David Olsen told me "no one thought would ever be developed." David said review of the project "ate our lunch with staff time." An existing residential neighborhood is to the right.]
Another concern that we discussed over lunch is the impact on land values and housing prices -- which have been rising at a much greater rate than wages. Donna noted that the city's housing authority has been quite active, having built some one hundred units (a considerable amount, given that Moab's population is about 5,000). And there are also worries about how Moab might change as more people live there for just a month or two each year, or view their Moab property primarily as a land investment.
But I was also told that Moab's rising role as a destination resort was the result of a conscious city policy to focus on building the city's resort image. This campaign had its roots in the closing of the Atlas Uranium Mill in 1984, sending shockwaves through Moab's economy. Local leaders felt that tourism offered a more solid future for the city.
Moab is learning to deal with the challenges it is facing. But after lunch, in driving around the city with David Olsen, I was reminded of the other Moab, the one I'm sure full-time residents know and love. David took us to Rotary Park, a wonderful place with a remarkable collection of musical instrument/park structures. Additional playable musical pieces are added whenever the opportunity arises. I'd never seen anything quite like it in a local park.
And David takes justifiable pride in the expanding trails system, linking schools, parks, and neighborhoods.
Finally, David mentioned my post about Pueblo, Colorado, where I commented that coffee houses may be an indicator of a community's health. David offered a substitute measure as an indicator of Moab's vitality: the number of bike shops in town. David quickly listed five, then added, "and that doesn't include the bike touring companies."
p.s., for those of you who are sticklers for accuracy, I have to acknowledge that Moab is not on Route 50 -- but if you look at a Utah map, there just aren't many places that are. But it's not that far off Route 50 -- and well worth the slight detour!