The question of who would benefit most from a parking structure currently under design for downtown Moab has divided local business owners, who showed up in relatively large numbers to speak about the matter during a Moab City Council meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 11.
Opposing the parking structure, as always, was local business owner Michael Liss, joined by fellow business owners Matt Hancock, Wendell Williams, Ryan Bird and Erin Bird. Other residents at the meeting also spoke in opposition to the project.
Moab City Council Member Mike Duncan and Moab City Planning Commissioner Jessica O’Leary, who said before she spoke that she was not speaking in her capacity as a planning commissioner, also joined those opposed.
Duncan brought before the council a resolution that would have immediately suspended the project, had it been approved by the council. The council ultimately took no vote on the proposed resolution, and a workshop on the matter was tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 18.
On the other side, in support of the parking structure, were business owners Mike Bynum and Jim Englebright. Daniel Loveridge, who is the general manager of Hoodoo Moab — which Bynum owns — also spoke in favor of the project.
A major undercurrent in the comments shared Tuesday by local residents and business owners on the topic of the parking structure was who the project most benefited.
After Williams alluded in his comments to the project benefitting “developers who have land immediately surrounding the complex, namely, two well-known property owners,” Liss explicitly mentioned Bynum, who is also redeveloping the site of The Rio.
“I have got to mention the elephant in the room: Mike Bynum is the one benefitting 90% on this,” Liss said.
In response to this, Bynum told The Times-Independent in a follow-up interview Wednesday, “Respectfully, it is our hope that the whole downtown business community will benefit, and that is our intent.”
Bynum said that he is the manager of Utah Desert Investments, which donated the land where the parking structure would go, to the city in 2004. He said that, as part of the donation, an agreement was reached with the city to work toward developing parking in that space.
Many officials, including Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells, Utah Department of Transportation Project Manager Ryan Anderson, Mayor Emily Niehaus and others have said that the idea for the parking structure was borne of discussions with Grand County and Moab elected officials who had sought funding from the UDOT for mitigating tourism impacts in the city.
Out of those discussions, the officials said that a parking structure and dispersed parking were the leading ideas, and the Utah Transportation Commission allocated $8.3 million for the former and $1.7 million for the latter.
Now, however, with inflating cost estimates forcing the $8.3 million parking structure project to be reduced in size and with rejuvenated pushback, including on the city council, council members are planning to take a closer look at the project and expressed a hope that their questions about budgeting could be answered.
Where the council stands
During discussion of Duncan’s resolution, on which no vote was taken, to postpone the parking structure project, other council members and Niehaus shared their own thoughts.
Council Member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd lobbied for a workshop on the matter and said that she did not want to “completely scrap” the project and work that has already gone into it but changes to it, she said, might be appropriate.
Knuteson-Boyd also emphasized that, although the parking study completed last year indicated that parking around Moab was ample at the time, the availability of parking could change over time.
“One of the recommendations in that parking study is that we move forward with this structure,” Knuteson-Boyd said. “It doesn’t say it’s a silver bullet — a panacea that solves every problem that we have — it was just one of the recommendations among many.”
Council Member Kalen Jones emphasized the project was chosen out of many options proposed and considered as Moab first sought UDOT funding.
“I still support this project,” Jones said, but added that he was worried about the growing cost estimates the project was facing.
Member Rani Derasary had a large number of questions to ask about the project, including about the cost of maintaining the project, the mechanism by which the city could pause the project if it so wished, whether the project would actually adhere to city code — City Manager Joel Linares said it would — and other details.
Council Member Karen Guzman-Newton said that, as a member of the design advisory committee working with contractor Kimley-Horn, she was frustrated by what she said was the contractor providing a lack of detail on and opportunity to discuss “hard questions” about the price tag of the project and how much the design choices being made would actually cost.
“I’m seeing too many red flags,” Guzman-Newton said.
Niehaus spoke extensively with an eye toward how the garage could complement other projects in town and assuaging concerns about what might happen if the city does or does not move forward.
“Let us not forget,” Niehaus said, “that UDOT got the bids back for the widening [which were over budget] and went through the process and went back to the Transportation Commission and said, ‘It’s going to cost more; it’s Moab. We need more money.’ And what did the Transportation Commission say? Yes.”