Residents hopeful new Utah State Fairpark plan will revive west-side area some say is underutilized

Over the years, would-be plans for the Fairpark have come and gone. But the director says the latest one is different.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The main gate to the Utah State Fairpark on Monday, May 23, 2022. A master plan proposes several new development projects at the Fairpark over the next 15 years.

Every year, the Utah State Fairpark transforms into a noisy, neon dreamland of carnival rides in motion. But when the Fairpark isn’t filled with happy fairgoers nibbling on cotton candy and fried Oreos, the site can feel lonely, even inhospitable.

The giant yellow slide, open only for the state fair in September, has signs that say “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” the rest of the time. The concession stands are closed more often than they’re open. The gates that lead down to the Jordan River waterfront have big padlocks on them. There are no permanent restaurants to visit or stores to shop at.

That’s why several nearby residents are excited about the prospect of new development at the 65-acre Fairpark, outlined in a master plan released May 18.

Over the years, people who live in this west-side neighborhood have heard about a lot of would-be plans for the Fairpark — including ideas for a nature center and a soccer stadium.

But Larry Mullenax, executive director of the Utah State Fair, says this “holistic” plan is different. When he presented it to an interim legislative committee last month, he said Fairpark officials aimed to draft a proposal that would boost the site financially as well as make it an amenity that Utahns statewide would want to visit.

“I’m really excited about this master plan,” Mullenax said during his presentation to the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee. “When I arrived at the Fairpark six years ago, there were four master plans on my desk, and all they ever did was go unnoticed. This one is actionable.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tayah Richens, 7, from Lapoint, goes down the giant yellow slide at the Utah State Fair, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The giant yellow slide at the Utah State Fairpark on Monday, May 23, 2022.

New stuff in a ‘perfect location’

The century-old buildings at the Fairpark are interesting to look at, and the grass and trees offer respite on a sweltering day.

”When we’re open, you can come right onto the grounds and you could ride your bicycle,” Mullenax told The Salt Lake Tribune. “You could come and have a picnic, whatever you wanted to do.”

A Tribune reporter asked residents who live along 1000 West — the Fairpark’s eastern boundary — whether they visit the site when the fair isn’t going on. Rebecca Sims — who answered the doorbell holding her chihuahua Zeus — said no.

“But I practice my motorcycle skills in the parking lot,” she said.

James Moran, who spoke from his front porch on 200 North, near the Fairpark’s main gate, said he sometimes takes his poodle mix Ewok for walks around the site, or along the Jordan River. But if the fair isn’t in town, he doesn’t usually visit either.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The fences that block off the banks of the Jordan River at the Utah State Fairpark are photographed Monday, May 23, 2022.

The site has always bugged him, he said.

“I’ve always seen it as a huge area of space that Salt Lake could use to their benefit. Yet it’s not used to their benefit,” he said. “They basically use it for two weeks out of the year when the fair comes, and then a couple concerts.” (He said he loved it when the Days of ’47 Arena went in, “even though they have it mostly for rodeos.”)

If the Fairpark ever became popular, Moran said, it’s in a “perfect location” that’s right on TRAX and close to the airport. “But it’s never been utilized as well as it can be.”

The latest plan would add an exposition center, hotel and permanent attractions, including a Ferris wheel, a ropes course and a climbing gym. (The projects described in the plan are still being studied as far as feasibility and benefits, according to Mullenax.)

Sims said she likes having things within walking distance, and is excited about the retail, restaurants and more proposed in the plan. So is Moran.

“There haven’t been a whole lot of spots that I can go and just have a beer or go out to a club, or go to a sports bar — unless I go to downtown Salt Lake City,” said Moran, who just sold his home after living there for five years. “It would be nice if you had the ability to do that right here in Fairpark.”

Susan Schaefer has lived across the street from the Fairpark for nine years, and she said she was a little disappointed when the plan to build an 8,000-seat minor-league stadium to house the Real Monarchs on the site didn’t work out. (In 2015, former RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen backed out of the deal, which also would’ve revitalized the overall Fairpark.)

The next year, Fairpark officials considered a renovation that would’ve included a west-side Tracy Aviary campus next to the Jordan River, with kayak and boat rentals and concession stands. (In 2020, the Jordan River Nature Center’s transitional campus opened in South Salt Lake instead.)

In the latest plan, the idea for a new kayak launch is back, along with a new Jordan River walkway, improvements to the riverfront, and an entrance to the Fairpark from nearby Constitution Park.

But no matter what gets built now, Schaefer said she was glad to hear that it will be a mixed-use development that can be utilized by a variety of people, and not just housing.

Transforming a ‘big gravel pit’ into housing, retail

Housing is part of the plan for the White Ballfield though, which Moran described as the “big gravel pit that they’re not using in any way, shape or form.”

A dirt lot just south of the Fairpark TRAX station, the White Ballfield has never been developed except for two softball fields that used to be there, Mullenax said. But since the Utah State Fairpark Corporation only manages the property for the state, he told the legislative committee, he hasn’t been able to do much about that. “We have limitations on what we can do and what we cannot do,” he said.

The White Ballfield is slated to be developed with at least 320 residential units, 60,000 to 90,000 square feet of “flex” office space, 6,500 square feet of retail or restaurant space, and surface and structured parking, according to the plan.

“That would be really nice if they do develop that,” Moran said. “I think it can stimulate the local economy.”

But since the lot also serves as overflow parking for about 1,000 vehicles during the state fair and other events, Mullenax said the “first order of business” is to pilot a shuttle parking program.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The empty White Ballfield is photographed south of the Utah State Fairpark on Monday, May 23, 2022.

During the fair, which runs this year from Sept. 8-18, individuals will be shuttled to the event from remote parking lots through the use of electric vehicles and ride-share programs, he said, to make sure it’s feasible to change the White Ballfield’s parking capacity.

With her dog Coco Loco peeking through the window screen, Schaefer told The Tribune that parking demands worried her, even though TRAX is an option.

“If some of the space is going away,” she said, “where is that additional parking going to come from?”

Heavy fair traffic in the Fairpark neighborhood is an annual headache for residents.

“We’re still working on the actual details, but we have got to find a way to shuttle people in and out of the Fairpark without relying so heavily on coming down into the community, into the neighborhood,” Mullenax said.

Overcoming safety issues

The Fairpark has three gates that open onto North Temple. But unless an event is going on, entry to the site is usually limited to the main gate on 1000 West, and the other gates are locked. The site is also surrounded by unscalable black fences that curl outward at the top.

Mullenax acknowledges that the Fairpark has a lot of fences, but he said they exist out of necessity to protect the historic buildings.

Before the fences went up, “we were having so much destruction and damage done to the buildings through vandalism that we had to take those steps,” he told the interim legislative committee. “But the long-term plan is to remove a lot of those fences and make it more open [and] accessible to the public.”

Several residents of the Fairpark neighborhood told The Tribune that they’re worried about crime and safety, and that they hope the new development helps with that.

Carl Letamendi, who has two young daughters, has been debating whether he and his family would like to stay in Rose Park or move away.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carl Letamendi, photographed on his porch on Monday, May 23, 2022, lives a few blocks from the Utah State Fairpark.

Born in New York City but raised in South Florida, Letamendi said that when he came back to New York, some of the neighborhoods he knew had “totally changed.” He credits much of that revival to real estate development in neglected areas.

In the Fairpark and Rose Park neighborhoods, he said, “with the homelessness and the drug issue, it does worsen the neighborhood quite a bit.” He hopes that the area gets more attention from developers, and that the city also stations more police officers there.

Schaefer also is concerned about safety and security. “We have a lot more transient activity going on,” she said, adding that she hopes developers understand that “not all individuals coming in may be well intentioned.”

Moran, however, said he has seen the unsheltered population in the Fairpark area go down “considerably” the past few years.

According to an online dashboard of active requests in the SLC Mobile app, “concerns regarding homelessness” submitted in the ZIP code 84116 (which encompasses the Fairpark and Rose Park neighborhoods) did rise significantly from two in May 2021 to 55 in June 2021. Complaints peaked at 119 in September 2021 before dropping in the winter, then rising again in the spring.

There were 116 complaints in March, 58 in April and 51 in May. In the Fairpark neighborhood, the areas that garner the most complaints about homelessness are along North Temple and the Jordan River.

Victoria Petro-Eschler — Salt Lake City Council member for District 1, which includes Fairpark, Jordan Meadows, Rose Park and Westpointe — said via email that she’s “vigilant of the infrastructure and safety concerns we need to overcome.”

“But these issues are nothing new for us,” she continued. “All of our growth is daunting and requires our proactive work. The net outcome of these developments is going to be game-changing in allowing North Temple to reclaim its status as a grand boulevard that is a thriving, dignified and desirable gateway to the city and ensuring that all that is amazing about the west side is readily accessible to all.”

What happens next?

While Mullenax said he hopes the Fairpark could self-fund the entire project, the plan eventually requires approval from the Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management.

On May 18, Fairpark officials asked the interim committee for support to facilitate that process. The Fairpark plan did secure a majority of votes on the committee, but the endorsement failed because a majority of senators, those from rural districts, voted no. (To win support from an interim committee, you need a majority from both the committee’s House members and its Senate members.)

“It’s premature for this committee to get 100% behind this,” said Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, before the vote. “Salt Lake County seems to be overcrowded, overpopulated and overpolluted already. … It seems like every time we try to help Salt Lake County, like the [inland port], they don’t want more jobs.

“If we can’t raise $2 million or so to name some of the buildings,” Hinkins continued, “$200 million seems out of the question.”

According to Mullenax, Fairpark officials plan to meet with committee members over the coming weeks to discuss their concerns with the plan.

In the meantime, Mullenax is gearing up for a summer of asking Utahns what they think about the Fairpark.

He said officials plan to have a booth at the state fair where people can learn more about the plan and provide feedback. He added that he’s considering outreach throughout the state as well.

To view the Utah State Fairpark plan: Visit UtahStateFair.com, click “about us,” and scroll down to “Fairpark Master Plan.” At the bottom of the webpage, you’ll find the Master Plan Summary and the complete Fairpark Master Plan.

“It’s really important that we keep in mind that while we’re in Salt Lake City, we do represent the whole state and we do want to make sure that everyone has a voice,” he said.

The architectural firm EDA sought community feedback about the Fairpark plan through a statewide online survey, as well as focus groups with local community representatives and business owners, according to Mullenax. The plan includes a report with those findings.

As of late May, none of the residents along the perimeter of the Utah State Fairpark that The Tribune spoke to said they’d heard anything about the master plan.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Promontory Hall at the Utah State Fairpark is photographed Monday, May 23, 2022.

‘The shining star’ of the Fairpark neighborhood

One thing that Letamendi said he’s noticed about Utah, coming from New York City, is that “people from Utah really very much like keeping things the way they are. And I’m realizing that there are certain circumstances where it’s OK to step outside of that.”

Alejandro Puy — Salt Lake City Council member for District 2, which includes part of Fairpark, Glendale and Poplar Grove — said the plan is “encouraging.”

“The state Fairpark is the place where we connect the countryside/rural Utah with the urban, and I look forward to a bright future for this site where the community can gather and enjoy this site’s history and entertainment,” Puy said.

The new master plan, Mullenax said, could be a boost not just for the Fairpark site, but for the whole neighborhood.

“The area around the Fairpark is also going through its changes,” he said, “and I just strongly believe that this will become the shining star, if you will, for this area in the next few years.”

Moran and his dog Ewok will be finding a new porch to sit on together. But they might not go far.

“I think this entire area — Rose Park, Fairpark — is such a great area in Salt Lake City,” he said, later adding, “I would not be surprised at all if I bought another property in this area.”

— Tribune staff writer Brian Maffly contributed to this story.