By Nathaniel Smith • The Times-Independent
The year was 1984; about two-thirds of Moab’s residents were on the way out of town and it seemed the community was poised to become the eighth ghost town in Grand County. Joe Kingsley’s real estate agency had over 300 vacant houses on the market selling for between $30,000 and $40,000 each. The uranium boom had run its course and the town was scrambling to find a new direction.
The city held two town hall meetings where the question was posed: “What are we going to do?” Star Hall was filled to the point that there was standing room only. Some advocated for returning to Moab’s roots by growing orchards and raising livestock. A lone voice from the back of the room proposed that Moab was actually sitting on an untapped gold mine – tourism. Initially, people scoffed at the idea of Moab becoming a tourist destination. You’re not thinking outside of the box, even the dump is beautiful, was the man’s response.
Inspired, a reporter from the Associated Press offered to write an article advertising a contest for the country’s most scenic dump. Almost a hundred applications poured in as the story gained national attention. As part of the chamber of commerce and president of the local real estate association, Kingsley pushed for the contest. It led to Kingsley being interviewed by television journalists Larry King, Dan Rather and Charles Kuralt, as well as landing him on the cover of the Wall Street Journal and Outdoor Magazine. Looking back, Kingsley figured the dump contest gave Moab about $15 million in free publicity. The Salt Lake Tribune published the only negative coverage of the contest, claiming it impinged upon the publicity for Utah’s “Greatest Snow on Earth” campaign.
Kodiak, Alaska ended up winning the contest, but Kingsley still sees it as a pivotal moment in Moab’s history that laid the foundation for the city’s surging tourism industry of today. Kingsley acknowledges that being instrumental in bringing the tourism boom to Moab may draw more blame than praise from a segment of Moab locals nowadays, but that won’t stop him from working to improve the community he loves. In recognition of Kingsley’s ceaseless dedication to improving Moab over the decades, the Moab Chamber of Commerce named him as “Citizen of the Year” for 2018.
During the winter of 1973, Kingsley arrived in Moab in search of gold while living in an unheated, dirt floor log cabin in Castle Valley. When his business partner’s scheme to get gold from the Colorado River failed to pan out, Kingsley began what became a series of successful business ventures by selling real estate around the old Pace Ranch. He helped Castle Valley become a town and then served as its first mayor for a year.
Aside from starting Arches Realty, southeastern Utah’s longest continuously active real estate company, Kingsley also owned a restaurant called the Poplar Place for ten years, and he now owns Sore No More, which produces popular pain-relief ointment, and GloGerm, a company that creates kits that illuminate how well (or poorly) people wash their hands.
Kingsley’s connection to Moab goes far beyond his various businesses. He served on the board of the Moab Chamber of Commerce and acted as its president for five years. He helped establish the local travel council and served on its board for 11 years. For two years, Kingsley was president of the local Rotary Club. He ran the local chapter of the Salvation Army and volunteered with the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association. Currently, Kingsley is the vice chair of the Moab Transit Authority Study Committee where he has worked on innovative ideas.
When discussing the honor of being named citizen of the year, Kingsley was quick to attribute his numerous accomplishments to teamwork rather than claiming all the credit. “I’ve been blessed to have good people around me making things happen and getting them done,” Kingsley said. He was particularly appreciative of John Fogg, Bob Jones and the late A. Dan Holyoak. He also thanked the Rotary Club for making much of the work he has done possible.
The Moab Chamber of Commerce accepts nominations for the award all year and then the executive committee selects the winner. Laici Shumway, the chamber’s executive director, said that when Kingsley’s name came up, everyone knew he was a good fit. Shumway mentioned the fact that even after his retirement, Kingsley has continued his efforts to improve Moab. “Everybody agreed he is a huge part of the community, he loves the community and everything he does is to strengthen the community,” Shumway said. The decision is always difficult, but Kingsley clearly embodies the type of selfless and inspiring leader that the chamber hopes to honor with the citizen of the year award.
After leaving the excitement of Salt Lake City, New York City and other locales behind, Kingsley was never drawn away from Moab. Even when the town’s direction was far from clear, Kingsley’s belief in and love for Moab never wavered. “Moab has been really good to me, and I am very honored to be citizen of the year,” he said.