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Park City's rock 'n roll mayor bows out

Published December 30, 2013 11:11 am

For three terms Dana Williams sought to keep the resort town real.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Park City • He was a farmer and barkeep, a real estate agent and environmental activist, a barista and mayor of Park City. Oh, yeah, and Dana Williams was — and still is — the front man for a rock band.

After three terms as mayor and unofficial ambassador-in-chief of Park City, Williams is about to launch a new chapter. He's not exactly sure what that might be. One thing is certain though — he's had a heck of a run at City Hall.

Williams was elected in November 2001 and soon found himself in the spotlight of national news media, hosting Park City's side of the 2002 Winter Olympics. He was lauded on NBC's "Today Show" and later in the Los Angeles Times as the hip mayor with the earring and Fender guitar. The big smile and personality to match didn't hurt.

The mayor's last official act this week was to marry 25 same-sex couples in the wake of a landmark ruling striking down Utah's law against such unions. "That was just great," Williams said.

There have been plenty of milestones between those bookends for the California Polytechnic grad who majored in horticulture. Park City has cemented its identity as a world-class destination. And while that sparks images of the rich and famous, the town's 58-year-old mayor is more of a Hawaiian shirt guy who is comfortable talking to just about everyone.

"Throughout the whole tenure as mayor, I had this sense of pride for being in Park City and being the spokesman for the people in this community," he said.

Although Park City has a manager/council form of government with a so-called part-time "weak mayor," Williams has occupied a space much like a full-time — make that 24/7 — executive. On the town's behalf he has cultivated relationships with the governor, state Legislature and Utah's congressional delegation — he's even fist-bumped with first lady Michelle Obama. And his diplomatic style has yielded results and recognition for his town.

Beginnings • Williams began to hone his people skills behind the bar at Ryan's, a long-gone Main Street watering hole he operated with his brother, Evan, in the 1980s while he did a little farming near Hoytsville. A decade later, Williams, like many other young Parkites with growing families, went into real estate. Unlike most Realtors, however, he also was at the forefront of Citizens for Responsible Growth (CARG), an environmental organization that sought, among other things, to reduce the scope of development in Empire Canyon on Park City's south flank.

But rather than setting up a nasty fight, Williams established a tone of cooperation and collaboration with City Hall and landowner United Park City Mines, recalled City Councilwoman Liza Simpson. CARG's activities, along with the popularity of Williams' group, the Motherlode Canyon Band, eventually propelled him into the mayor's job.

"More than anything he brought a real spirit of collaboration to City Hall. That's his legacy," Simpson said. "His approach was, 'We can agree to disagree and go have a beer afterwards.' "

Among the challenges Park City faced, along with other communities across the country, was making room for its new immigrant residents. Williams made a point of fostering a sense of diversity in his ski town, particularly of immigrant Latinos. About 25 percent of Park City's full-time population is now Latino.

"We made it clear, this is an inclusive community, and these folks are welcome here," he said.

Setting a tone • An activist for the Latino community, Shelley Vebber, recalled Williams' embrace of the immigrant community. "He absolutely has been a supporter of the Hispanic community," she said. "He really set a tone for people being decent to each other."

Williams was the right person to take the mayor's seat when he did, Vebber added. "It was an alignment of the stars," she said. "We had this community that, at the time, could really appreciate a rock 'n' roll mayor."

Williams, along with others at City Hall, has pushed for affordable housing to ensure the world-class resort maintains a middle class and what the mayor calls the "funky" small-town feel that keeps residents smiling.

"There are people who think, all you people in Park City think you're special. And we do. But it's not because we're exclusionary. It's what we have done as a town that makes it special for us," he said. "Unless the government participated in affordable housing, we would not have a middle class, but 40 percent of this town is still working class. It's something we're very proud of."

Williams' tenure also will be known for City Hall's progressive and green agenda and its efforts to preserve open space. When he took office, Park City had 2,000 acres of protected lands; today it has 10,000 acres. That required protracted negotiations with the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Defense, among others.

Undone • But while the outgoing mayor has had a good 12 years, he hasn't gotten everything on his wish list. Despite years of effort to halt it, a movie production and commercial center are slated to go up along State Route 248 at the town's east entrance. "It got shoved down our throat," Williams said, referring to Summit County's acquiescence to threatened litigation by Davis County developer Greg Erickson, who has the backing of several powerful state legislators who say the project will bring economic development to Utah.

Another big item left hanging from Williams' tenure is the unfinished business surrounding the Sweeney brothers' proposal for a large resort — Treasure Hill — abutting the historic district. As he leaves office, the mayor's years-long struggle to broker a lower-density plan, like he had with Empire Canyon, had not yet come to fruition.

Not least is the town's evolving relationship to the new local power broker — Vail Resorts Inc. Although City Hall is out of the loop in the land-lease dispute between Park City Mountain Resort and Vail, which now operates the nearby Canyons Resort, Williams is cautiously optimistic and predictably protective of his town.

"In terms of having one of the premium players in the world here in Park City, it's a plus," Williams said of Vail. "But do they want to become part of us, or do they want us to become them? Because we do not want to be Vail, Colorado. Park City has always been a real town."

csmart@sltrib.com