Utah Governor Gary Herbert made it clear that he appreciates the beauty of Moab and the tourism industry its citizens cultivate — he opened Arches National Park during a government shutdown in 2013, and during the joint Grand County Council-Moab City Council meeting he attended in Moab last Wednesday, Oct. 4, he heard Moab’s representatives explain just what it takes to make their city thrive.
According to Utah’s Office of Tourism, visitors to the state brought in $1.15 billion in tax revenue in 2015, 15.2 percent of which came from Grand County alone. Despite this, city council members view several discrepancies between the city and state over laws that affect Moab citizens and their ability to coexist with tourism on a local level.
One such law, brought up by council members at the meeting, is proposed in House Bill 253, which would allow property owners greater freedom in advertising on short-term rental websites, such as AirBnB.
Council member Curtis Wells told the governor that the city’s complaints are not with short-term rentals, like AirBnB in general, but in their inability to control zoning in residential areas. Wells explained to the governor that the sharply increasing number of short-term rental properties is leading to a decreasing supply of affordable housing for Moab residents and seasonal workers.
Moab Area Travel Council Director Elaine Gizler reported that the transient room tax is another area in which the state control is exercised over Moab tourism. Gizler said that placing the duty of collecting this tax on the state has cost Moab over $158,000.
The governor listened to concerns of the council members, and made it clear that he came to Moab to understand the concerns of its citizens. As a self-proclaimed free market capitalist, he believes in “bottom up politics,” where local governments take local matters into their own hands and have the resources to do so. While he offered no immediate solutions, he voiced his support for the initiative of Moab’s local government, which could prove important in Utah legislation.
Governor Herbert also voiced his support of Moab’s interest in the $100 million UDOT fund for transportation projects. When the city council said their interest in using this funding to improve Moab’s ability to support the heavy traffic of its tourism industry, Herbert remarked, “I understand the need, now you need to engage.”
Another topic discussed at the meeting was the proposal for building a new campus for Utah State University-Extension in Moab.
The proposal is a non-controversial one, according to Dr. Lianna Etchburger, executive director of USU-Extension. Dr. Etchburger said that the community in Moab recognizes the opportunities the campus will provide in creating more high paying jobs for its residents, and more affordable education for its local students.
Because of this, the university has already had some success in fundraising for the project internally. Gov. Herbert said he was optimistic that, given the community support and internal fundraising, the state would offer its support to the project as well.
Prompted by members of the city council, the conversation then turned to public lands.
City council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd told the governor that the citizens of Moab are very passionate about the public land surrounding their homes, and Wells supported her statement, saying, “Conservation deserves a seat at the table, but it needs a more collective approach.”
Despite his continued support in favor of placing federal lands under state control, Gov. Herbert stressed that Moab residents have nothing to worry about, calling energy development a “myth” and saying, “We are a public lands state. We will always be a public lands state.”
“We ought to be good stewards of our land,” Gov. Herbert said, “and manage them to their optimal benefit.”
In his closing remarks, the governor stressed the importance of respectful and civil discourse amidst political disagreement. “I’m so sick of politicians that are always right,” he said, indicating that he prefers effective politicians that are concerned with “nothing but the facts.”
The governor thanked the city council members for their input, and encouraged them to continue working with both their constituents and the state to provide Utah residents a “high quality of life.”