Once used as a disposal ditch for laundries, slaughterhouses and even city sewers, the Jordan River could become the scenic centerpiece of the Wasatch Front with bicycle trails, boat launches and pedestrian bridges stretching from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake.
But that transformation won't come without leadership. Or money.
Those are two must-have ingredients that river advocates in Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties must identify to ensure the long-term preservation and revitalization of the urban river.
Should a nonprofit organization oversee the river and tap private donations to pay for upgrades? Should a special taxing district pump a predictable revenue stream from residents' pockets into the river? Should a commission with political clout direct development and snag government dollars to improve the Jordan corridor?
Those questions are surfacing as a coalition of government officials and interest groups, known as the Blueprint Jordan River Implementation Committee, wades into ways to make the river -- sullied in some spots by garbage, graffiti and crime -- and its unfinished parkway a regional attraction.
"I don't know anybody who doesn't look at the Jordan River and say, 'The parkway is a tremendous asset,' " said Chris McCandless, a Sandy councilman and chairman of the committee. "The question is, How do we buy what [private property] is remaining and manage it?"
It's a mind-boggling task for river lovers. Not only must they come up with cash to buy an estimated 3,800 acres of private property still along the banks, but also they must create a governing body that is palatable to the three counties and 15 cities lining the waterway.
Success could mean an expansive nature preserve amid the state's most populous region, with 7,300 acres devoted to riverside recreation and wildlife protection. The vision includes an unobstructed pathway for bicyclists, pedestrians and wildlife watchers stretching from lake to lake, a wide swath of open space to keep homes and businesses from snugging too close to the river, launches for canoes and kayaks and, possibly, the development of "river centers" with restaurants, equipment rentals and riverside venues for public gatherings.
The blueprint committee now must float its recommendation about how to steer that development along the meandering 54-mile river. Here are some possibilities:
A river commission » Likely patterned after the Utah Lake Commission, this multi-jurisdictional board would coordinate development along the river and, potentially, exercise planning commission-like authority over projects near the banks. The commission would have no taxing power. Instead, it would have to pursue public bonds, grants or private donations -- or rely on the purse strings of municipalities -- to buy land or improve the waterway.
A special taxing district » This form of governance -- if approved by voters -- would come with a dedicated tax stream for the river. With an average increase of $20 to residents' annual tax bills, for instance, the district could capture $8 million annually, Envision Utah estimates. The river commission still could be formed under this model, with the district serving as its funding arm.
A nonprofit » Because a nonprofit organization would have no formal authority, cities and counties would keep their autonomy for directing river development within their boundaries. The nonprofit would coordinate efforts with the help of local officials and stakeholders. Although this model has worked successfully for more than 40 years in Weston, Mass., according to Envision Utah, its lack of a funding pool outside of private or public donations could clog progress.
A cooperative plan » Instead of centralizing power in a single board, cities and counties would adopt the blueprint's principles and retain authority for implementing those guidelines within their jurisdictions. But overall river management would rest with parks departments in Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties.
The blueprint committee appears to be leaning toward a commission. It devoted nearly two hours to the topic Thursday and plans to continue the debate next month.
It's an approach that worries river advocate Jeff Salt, particularly with the committee's emphasis on stacking that commission with politicians from each community. He argues that too much reliance on elected officials doomed the former Provo-Jordan River Parkway Authority in the early 1980s. When officials stopped showing up, the authority collapsed.
Salt advocates a more community-centered approach that would vest stakeholders with stewardship over the river. That group, he says, would be less likely to succumb to political and developmental pressures.
"We can't trust these local officials to run the show," he said.
But Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson believes a commission would be a good start and argues that elected involvement is crucial for coordinating planning and funneling resources along the regional river. What the model lacks, she says, is money.
"When the time is right, economically, we really would want to create a revenue stream -- should the citizens be willing," Wilson said. "Without that, we can't meet our goal of property acquisition."
But the cash question is sure to spawn controversy -- especially in a wilted economy.
The concept of a special taxing district, for instance, doesn't settle well with city leaders such as Murray Mayor Daniel Snarr, who fears his community -- which has sunk millions into the Jordan River and the parkway -- would be taxed twice to pay for improvements in other jurisdictions.
The central-valley suburb has added pavilions, restrooms, equestrian trails, boat ramps and walking paths to its stretch of the Jordan River, which runs from 6600 South to about 4800 South.
"Do we get reimbursed for all that we already have done?" Snarr asked.
Any funding flow, the mayor suggested, should account for the money communities already have poured into their portions of the river.
Then again, a special taxing district isn't the only possibility. Policymakers could turn to public bonds, sales taxes, corporate sponsorships, user fees, state and federal grants, private foundations and contributions from local governments, to name a few.
"For this effort to be successful," McCandless said, "funding has got to be part of the equation."
McCandless has his own gauge for success along the Jordan River: Someday, he wants to step onto his bike and pedal alongside the river from lake to lake. The parkway already stretches 40 miles. He has 14 miles to go.
A campaign under way to restore the Jordan River will take leadership and money to succeed. A coalition of community activists and elected officials is debating what type of governing board would best ensure the river's long-term success. So what are the options? And what are the pros and cons?
Form a river commission » This board of community leaders and special-interest representatives would oversee and coordinate development within the river corridor. The plus: Because it would centralize management of the river in a single body, the commission could apply consistent planning principles across jurisdictions. The drawback: The board would have no taxing authority, forcing it to rely on public bonds, grants or private donations.
Create a special taxing district » This approach to river governance would come with a dedicated tax stream. The plus: The district could levy a property tax to pay for river improvements, potentially hastening property purchases and corridor development. The drawback: A taxing district could prove unpopular among cities, particularly if one city perceives its tax base as subsidizing another.
Enlist a nonprofit » Instead of having a quasi-governmental board oversee river development, this approach would recruit a nonprofit to do it. The plus: Because a nonprofit has no direct authority over the river, cities and counties would retain their autonomy over riverside projects while receiving support and funding from an organization that can guide growth on a regional level. The drawback: A nonprofit would have no dedicated funding stream, forcing it to rely on private and public contributions that could slow progress along the river.
Rely on cooperative planning » Under this scenario, each community would adopt a common blueprint for preserving the river. The plus: Communities would enjoy autonomy over their portions of the river, but have uniform guidelines for developing it. The drawback: Regional cooperation would be more difficult without someone coordinating it. Not only that, but communities may apply the principles differently, yielding inconsistencies in development.
Source: Envision Utah