Robert Gehrke: Salt Lake City’s next mayor needs to think big. Like this.

Robert Gehrke

One of the best things a Salt Lake City mayor has done in my lifetime came in the late 1990s when then-Mayor Deedee Corradini spearheaded an effort to revive the downtown’s sagging west end.

It involved rerouting roads and bridges and ripping up rail lines in this blighted area. The result was a dramatic expansion and revival of the entire downtown, including construction of The Gateway and a rebirth that is still underway 25 years later.

It represented a big idea and demonstrated a vision for a city that was in need of big ideas.

It also represents the kind of big thinking that has largely been missing from this year’s mayoral race.

Over the past several months, the most prominent issues confronted by the candidates have been questions of how they will combat the inland port, who is best equipped to play nice with the Utah Legislature, how to make housing more affordable and how to improve air quality.

All of these are important issues, to be sure, and the candidates have basically agreed on the tools available and the steps they would take — keep suing over the port, work with the Legislature for housing funds and encourage people to drive less.

Fine and reasonable plans. And being mayor is a lot of nuts and bolts, day-to-day ministerial stuff. It ain’t sexy, but given how choppy things have been at times over the past four years, maybe voters are fine with someone who will fill the potholes and plow the roads.

But where is our Mayor Moonshot? Why aren’t candidates talking more about their grand vision for Salt Lake City in 10 or 20 or 25 years?

When we’ve seen a candidate step out with a bold idea, it has immediately been slapped down as an unrealistic pipe dream.

Last week everyone jumped on David Garbett for suggesting that he’d look for ways to move the oil refineries on the north end of the city. And they’re not entirely wrong. I could list a hundred obstacles that would have to be overcome — it’s private property, the oil companies don’t want to throw down the money to move, there are pipelines that would have to be realigned, road access would be an issue, so would the ground contamination, and EPA permitting would likely be a nightmare.

But nobody in their right mind can seriously think that the current location is the optimal spot for the refineries. If they weren’t already there and wanted to build there now, city residents would go ballistic on a scale that would make the inland port backlash look like a 2-year-old’s temper tantrum.

They are an eyesore, contribute to air pollution and stifle growth on the city’s north end. When people fly into the airport and look out the window and see pillars of fire like a scene from the movie “Blade Runner,” I doubt many think, “Hmm. This seems nice.” So of course we should explore ways to encourage or incentivize their relocation.

Even though Garbett didn’t actually promise the move, his opponents called his position “desperate” and “sensationalization” and an “exploitation” of residents’ concerns.

Garbett nailed it when he responded via Twitter: “Why bother running for mayor to talk about all of things you can’t do?”

Former City Council Chairman Stan Penfold got similar treatment when he suggested making UTA buses and trains free for Salt Lake City residents. His opponents said it was unrealistic and expensive. Keep dreaming, Stan.

And maybe they’re right. But we also know that on days we’ve had free fares, ridership has skyrocketed, cars have been taken off the road and that helps our air quality. So maybe the city doesn’t make it free every day or doesn’t make it free for everyone, but nobody gets anywhere if the default answer becomes, “Nope, can’t do it.”

OK. Not every idea is a winner. Richard Goldberger wants to pay people 10 cents for every cigarette butt they pick up and having the city lease The Buttmobile to drive around collecting the butts.

Maybe it’s far-fetched. Maybe it would basically be a $2-per-pack subsidy for smokers. But he’s definitely thinking way outside the box of easy-smoking Kools.

It was 57 years ago when President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And 50 years ago we achieved his goal.

Salt Lake City isn’t going to send anyone to the moon. The big ideas have to be visionary enough to inspire but realistic enough to deliver.

The good news is, there are already plenty of them floating out there waiting for a mayoral candidate to champion — ideas that would significantly reshape Salt Lake City.

Make it your top priority to partner with the state to redevelop the blighted State Street corridor.

Promise to get rid of the 900 South off-ramp and to open up east-west corridors to provide greater access from downtown to the west side of the city.

Close Main Street to car traffic between City Creek and 600 South, turning the unnavigable road into a vibrant and energized pedestrian thoroughfare akin to Denver’s 16th Street Mall.

Expedite completion of the Folsom Trail, connecting downtown to the Jordan River Parkway, or focus on renovating the Fleet Block near the booming Granary District.

Or lease a Buttmobile.

After tomorrow, the field will be whittled to two with just under three months to the election. By now, hopefully, we’ve established those two will be capable of doing the day-to-day job. But, like Garbett said, they shouldn’t be running to tell us what they can’t do.

Instead, here’s hoping they seize the opportunity they have to inspire voters and give us a vision for Utah’s capital city for the next four years and beyond.