Toquerville pulls out of proposed sports complex deal with BLM

Mayor Keen Ellsworth discloses he was a paid consultant for project developers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) In partnership with town of Toquerville, private developers had sought to build a recreational complex, with parks, trails and a charter school on this block of public land, just west of Interstate 15 in Washington County, photographed on May 12, 2022. The deal fell apart this month after the developers pulled out of its agreement with Toquerville, whose City County voted Sept. 7 to withdraw its application to acquire the land from the Bureau of Land Management.

The tiny southern Utah town of Toquerville has abandoned plans to develop a major sports destination on 607 acres of adjoining public land in Washington County, putting an early end to the project before the Bureau of Land Management could commence a planned environmental review.

Also coming to light last week was the existence of a consulting contract between the project’s would-be developers and Toquerville Mayor Keen Ellsworth, who has been a vocal booster for the $65 million Toquerville Athletic Recreation Complex, or ARC.

The move, announced at a Sept. 7 City Council meeting, came a month after the town’s private development partners — American Charter Development (ACD) and Eastward Management Group — pulled out of agreements with the town to finance, build and operate the proposed complex off Interstate 15.

ARC would have been the West’s largest sports complex with an RV park, wave pool, pickleball courts, 32 ball fields, a charter school, a 150,000-square-foot recreation center, trails and enough asphalt to park 6,000 cars.

At the council meeting, Ellsworth disclosed he had been paid consulting fees by the developers, revealing a potential conflict of interest that, in accordance with state law, should have been disclosed at past council discussions and votes regarding Toquerville’s involvement with ARC.

Minutes from some of these past meetings do not indicate he publicly disclosed his paid relationship with the developers, which began Aug. 17, 2020.

Ellsworth was paid to help the developers assemble an application to the BLM for the acquisition of the public land under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, or R&PP, he said at the Sept. 7 meeting.

The consulting contract was between developer Frank Tusieseina and EAL Investments LLC, Ellsworth’s consultancy. Tusieseina is the principal behind Eastward Management, as well as Zions Landing Development Group, which is pursuing a major resort project on private land next to where ARC was to be built.

Under this contract, Zions Landing was to pay Ellsworth $2,000 a month starting in August 2020 for the remainder of the year. At the time, Ellsworth was a city council member, and he became mayor at the beginning of this year.

As a council member in March 2020, he signed the memorandum of understanding on the city’s behalf with the developers. This is the document that spelled out the city’s and developers’ respective roles in developing the sports complex.

Ellsworth’s consulting contract, which contained a nondisclosure provision, also outlined his role helping the developers acquire state trust land at Anderson Junction near the ARC and “consult with Company on all planning and development requirements in connection with the City, County and State with regards to infrastructure, utilities, zoning, entitlements, and development agreements.”

The contract additionally secured Ellsworth’s assistance on “community relations” and “governance matters.”

It’s not clear from the contract if this work pertained to just the ARC or the Zions Landing resort, or both.

Under the contract, the parties were to keep their agreement “strictly confidential and not disclose its existence or any term hereof to any third party.”

The contract carved out an exception, however, to allow Ellsworth to disclose the arrangement to Toquerville’s major and in government meetings as required by Utah’s disclosure laws for elected officials. It’s not clear whether he did so prior to Sept. 7.

At that council meeting where he disclosed the consulting relationship, Ellsworth stressed that he was not involved “on the financial side” of the sports complex. But he gave no details about his paid work for the ARC developers, nor did city council members ask for any.

Neither Ellsworth nor City Manager Afton Moore responded to phone messages left on Thursday.

The developers had pulled out of the MOU in August, meaning the small city, with less than 2,000 residents, would have to take on the huge project on its own or find another developer to take it on.

The council unanimously decided to pull the plug rather than assume the financial risks of moving forward.