If you haven’t been to Helper lately, you ought to go. Big changes are happening.
That was the word from Helper City Councilman David Dornan during the Castle Country Business Retention and Expansion general meeting on January 19 at the Jennifer Leavitt Student Center at USU Eastern.
Dornan and his wife Mary Lou moved into the town many years ago after taking students on art trips to Moab and the southeastern part of the state. When they first saw the town, they knew it was a gem. They, along with David Johnson and Tom Williams, were some of the pioneer artists in a town that is now known as a place artists can go and live inexpensively. However, it is no longer a secret, Dornan says, as some big name artists are buying up buildings in the town along with others that see the city’s potential.
“The future of Helper is very bright,” said Dornan, the former University of Utah art professor, but not just with the artist community growing. “Our economy will eventually rely quite heavily on tourism.”
He pointed out that towns can survive and thrive on tourism in Utah, and not necessarily those like Park City. He gave an example of Daggett County, which is one of the best counties in the state when it comes to employment. Daggett County is synonymous with Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
“Everyone there has a connection to the visitors with outfitting and tourism,” he said.
Dornan expressed the view that while energy will always be a part of Helper’s economy and that one day carbon fibers from coal may be a big business, he sees the diversification of the towns economy and its mindset as something that must be achieved. And while Helper has no Flaming Gorge, it has a lot of other things to offer and many people are seeing that.
He pointed out the recreational opportunities, from the Helper Parkway and the river restoration project to the ATV and bike trails that run around and through the town.
“It used to be as residents we knew the Price River was there,” he said, gesturing down like it was far away from Helper because he said it was inaccessible. “Now with the river restoration project, we can get to it, see it and get in it.”
He feels that kayaking and tubing could bring a whole new identity to the town.
And since the town recently redid its infrastructure, that modern improvement is making many rethink what can be located there. He mentioned Tom Lund’s 106 unit RV park that is planned in the town as well as numerous buildings that are now being renovated, some by people from outside the area.
“People think of RV parks as camping, you know where you get all your stuff together and go somewhere,” he said. “But the people who will stay in that park are travelers who want to see and do things.”
He said that they will not come self contained, but instead will spend money in the local restaurants, stores and for other amenities. That RV park with its planned spaces and some cabins as well will provide lodging for events such as the Helper Arts Festival, car shows and other things that go on in the town.
He also pointed out all the things the town has from the Helper Mining and Railroad Museum, to the baseball complex, to the almost new swimming pool and the towns proximity to so many outdoor recreational activities, not to mention all the events year around, including the Helper Light Parade and the fact that the city is “Christmas Town Utah.”
A committee was formed some time ago to see what could be done with planning and revitalizing the town. Recently, they received a $15,000 grant to bring in specialists who will help to bring a new future to the town. These specialists (called a Sustainable Design Assessment Team) will include architects, planners, landscape architects, urban developers, economists who are specialists in small towns, etc. and they will be studying the city and its possibilities in the next few months. The grant came from the American Institute of Architecture.
He mentioned that the town needs to make sure that it has an image that is positive and that will require help from all the residents and property owners in the town. That means cleaning up and fixing up and then keeping it that way.
“An important thing to remember is that the little things count,” he said referring to revitalizing a town. “Little things are the tipping point for good things to happen. Aesthetics provide a bed for why people live somewhere.”
There are many good examples of what is presently going on in town. One is the restored gas station on the corner of Locust Street and Main Street. For years, the old 1930s gas station was one of the eyesores in town until an outside investor decided it would make the perfect restoration project. The renovation was recently completed and anyone who has seen it is excited about how it takes a person back to the period when gas was only a few cents a gallon and full service was common. Right now, its use is up in the air, but it could become a tourist center for information. Many other remodels are taking place including the Johnson/Williams building that will be used for apartments, retail stores and art studios and the recent purchase of “Jimbos,” which may become a restaurant and bed and breakfast. There are many other plans and projects in the offing too.
At one time, the city’s government did not really seem to support growth and change, or at least what could happen. He said that one council even thought about a special tax on artists who moved into town. That kind of politics is gone now.
Dornan also brought up the challenges of doing the things that need doing. Some of those include fixing weak regulations and rules for the upkeep of property, doing something with the many more derelict, vacant and abandoned buildings that are still around, improving a weak electric infrastructure system and the fear of change that some of the residents of the town have.
“The fact is change is coming to Helper,” said Dornan. “We need all perspectives to do this. There are a lot of gems in our community that we don’t know about. We need to find those people as well.”