Editor’s note • This article is one in an occasional series, Main Streets Utah, which takes a historical and current look at the central thoroughfares of different Utah cities.
Park City • The world is familiar with Park City’s Historic Main Street, having visited it or seen images of it from the 2002 Winter Olympics or the Sundance Film Festival.
For Parkites, as the people who live there year-round are called, the city’s Main Street can mean more than a picture postcard from a mountain town.
Locals — some who have lived there a couple of decades, others who have been there nearly half a century — refer to Main Street as a “big economic driver,” “the concentration” or “the centerpiece” of Park City and even its “heartbeat.”
Park City, seen by locals in ways the world might miss, embodies what cultural historian Miles Orvell writes about Main Street in any American city, that it’s “always been two things: A place and an idea.”
A place to remake yourself
Orr moved to Park City in 1979 from Lake Tahoe, where she owned a children’s clothing store, but her first visit to the mountain town was on a ski vacation in 1971.
Escaping an abusive first marriage, Orr said, she needed to find a place to run away too.
“That’s kind of the story of Park City, as well as Main Street … almost everybody has a prior [life] ... They came here wanting another life,” Orr said. “We wanted to be outlaws — skiing outlaws, but still.”
Orr’s original plan, she said, was to stay two years, maybe three, until she figured things out. She ended up staying for decades.
Orr has seen much of Main Street’s evolution since then, especially from her vantage point at the newspaper. As she walked up the street on a mid-August day, she pointed out areas that have colored her life.
She pointed out one building whose predecessor was burned down. Orr stood across the street from it, talking with the police chief for a story. She said she remembers the old Cozy Bar, which she wrote about, that had a swinging wooden sign that read “First Chance” on the way up and “Last Chance” on the way down Main Street.
The wedding for her second marriage took place on a patio space next to where the Kimball Art Center used to be. She pointed out local spots of notability: Red Banjo Pizza (Park City’s oldest business), Treasure Mountain Inn or Burns Cowboy Store (which outfitted characters on “Yellowstone”). And, of course, there’s the No Name Saloon, a place she would tell everyone to go.
On this day, pipes were causing trouble on Main Street, and parts of the street were being dug up. Local businesses didn’t have running water for a few hours. Orr, a true local, commented on how old the infrastructure is (something Park City’s public-radio station, KPCW, also reported).
Orr also noted that where what is considered “Old Main” ended, “it was always vibrant, always a heartbeat,” she said.
“There was a city planner that came in the early ‘80s and he [said] it looked like a smile with missing teeth,” Orr said, “which I thought was really great, because there were so many vacant lots that had weeds and they were not attractive.”
But, she added, “land in Park City — land everywhere — is a currency. When it changes hands in Park City, it almost always changes personality.”
The biggest change to Main Street’s personality, particularly its economics, was the 2002 Winter Olympics, Orr said. Before then, she said, it wasn’t as expensive to get a house in the city, or do business or get a meal on Main Street.
The balancing act that Park City, and Main Street, plays — of being both a destination location for tourists and a place for locals — is difficult for everyone, Orr said.
“It’s a dance that we do,” Orr said. “We promote, we invite people here, we tolerate the nonsense that we’ve created because we want this — we want when I can walk down the street with you and we’re not jostled. We’re able to have a conversation and I’m able to say, ‘This is my town.’”
Main Street remains the heart of the community, Orr said adamantly. “It’s been a privilege to be in a town and watch it grow up and to be able to have been a part of that,” she said. “Because it’s pretty rare that people move to a town and get to invent things.”
A place with history
In his 43 years living in Park City, Larry Warren — the former general manager of KPCW — said Main Street has “gone beyond what anybody would have imagined.”
Warren said he first visited Park City on a ski trip in 1970. “It had abandoned, tumble-down buildings, and I remember thinking this place has the potential of the resort towns in Colorado,” he said.
Main Street, Warren said, is still an iconic must-visit destination — but for locals looking for activities, “There aren’t as many opportunities as there used to be,” he said.
Warren agrees with Orr that the 2002 Olympics put Park City “on the map.” More recently, though, the town has felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — and an influx of what he called “COVID refugees,” wealthy people moving to Park City to stay in their second homes.
“It changed the dynamic in Park City considerably,” he said. “Mostly in housing, by driving up housing costs dramatically — and, parallel to that, driving up prices for activities on Main Street.”
Warren, a history buff, has written the text for much of the signage at the Park City Museum, a former firehouse on Main Street — and has produced the videos that play in the museum. (Before working at KPCW, Warren was a longtime reporter for KUTV, Ch. 2.) He also wrote a series of history articles, for the museum and The Park Record, called “Way We Were.”
The museum keeps records and tells the story of Park City’s mining history, with one display recreating what one of the old mines looked like. Other permanent exhibits chronicle the city’s volunteer fire department, the fire of 1898 that destroyed some 200 buildings, and the territorial jail — which visitors can walk into. (The museum also gives out preservation awards to current Main Street buildings, blue ribbons that can be seen up and down Main Street.)
Main Street has always been Park City’s centerpiece, Warren said, from mining days to now. “If you were a miner, you went to Main Street,” he said, “and if you’re a tourist in 2023, you go to Main Street. It’s a must.”
When Warren first arrived in Park City, the mine was still operating, he said. “It was just making the permanent turn from mining to tourism,” he said.
As a reporter, he covered the last shift miners ever had in Park City. After the shift was over, Warren said, “there was a lot of anger. It was the way of life of Park City for 100 years.” (It’s why Park City High School’s team name is the Miners.) He also recorded old Park City stories from Chinese immigrants who worked in the mines and lived behind Main Street, in the Chinatown now called Swede Alley.
There are certain places on Main Street, Warren said, that have stood the test of time and are “still a magnet for locals” — including the museum, The Egyptian Theatre, Dolly’s Bookstore, and No Name Saloon.
A place that’s always changing
Sally Cousins-Elliott came to Park City in 1986. As an Army wife, she said, “A good way to connect to each new home, which you find yourself in about every two to three years in the Army, is to learn the history of the area.”
“Main Street was the lifeblood of Park City in the old days. Now it’s [a] concentration of very high-end restaurants,” said Elliott, who served on the Park City municipal council and Summit County Council, and is co-chair of Friends of Ski Mountain Mining History, which is dedicated to preserving the town’s mining history.
The street, she said, “has changed from being the lifeblood of Park City to being an iconic reminder of its past.”
Park City Mayor Nann Worel said that “Main Street is one of our big economic drivers,” and has changed from when she first moved to the city. (Worel and her husband bought a second house in 2003, and moved to Park City full-time in 2008, she told Park City magazine.)
Worel, who was sworn in in 2022 and is the first woman to hold the job, said her first impression of Main Street “made me sad. It didn’t have any vibrancy. There were empty storefronts.”
Now, she said, there’s character everywhere — because the city has put a “tremendous amount of effort” into it, turning Main Street into one of the “crowning jewels” of the city. (NBC’s “Today” featured it in its “Merriest Main Streets of America” segment last year.)
“We’ve got such interesting shops,” said Worel, who spent several years on the city’s planning commission. She noted that the city council passed an ordinance a few years ago to restrict the number of chain businesses on Main.
Later in September, Worel said, the city council will consider a small-area plan for Main Street and Swede Alley, to see if there are “different ways to make it more vibrant.”
Promoting Park City’s economic growth while keeping it affordable for locals is a difficult task, Worel said.
“The cost per square foot on Main Street is much higher than certainly other parts of the state or even in other parts of Summit County,” Worel said. “Trying to help our local businesses thrive on Main Street, certainly, is important to the city as is trying to maintain who we are as a community.”
One success story for Main Street, Worel said, is the direct access to public transport. “We work very hard to get people out of their cars and on our buses or on bikes or other modes of transportation,” she said.
Public transport was the way to get to Main Street during the Kimball Arts Fest, which celebrated its 54th year in early August — and shut down all of Main Street to vehicles, so artists and vendors could put up their booths and display their work.
The festival’s director, Hillary Gilson, said this year’s event saw 200 artists — chosen from 1,200 applicants, in 13 art media: Ceramic, digital art, drawing, fiber, glass, jewelry, metal work, mixed media, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture and wood. But the festival’s backdrop, she said, are Main Street’s merchants and mountains.
“Main Street is called ‘Historic Main Street’ for a reason,” Gilson said. “Main Street has really been the heart and soul of Park City since [it] came into being.”
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