Why the Wasatch Front’s last drive-in theater, and a popular swap meet, might disappear

A zoning request may change the Redwood Drive-In, which has swap meet vendors concerned for their income and community.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vendors at the booths of the Redwood Drive-In Swap Meet — in the shadow of one of the theater's movie screens — on Saturday, June 8, 2024. The future of the drive-in is in question, as West Valley City government considers a request for a zoning change on the land where the theater has sat for 75 years.

For Maya and Joey Dominguez, going to the Redwood Drive-In Theatre and Swap Meet is more than a way to make money or pass the time.

“This is a business, but in here, it’s a community,” Maya said, gesturing around her on Saturday at the swap meet. “We lose this, we lose a lot.”

That sense of community — and many vendors’ source of income — might soon disappear.

EDGEHomes, a Utah home builder, has filed a petition to have the land where the drive-in sits rezoned from “commercial” to “housing” — and has proposed building condos, townhomes and single-family houses on the land, said Steve Pastorik, West Valley City’s director of community development.

The property at 3688 S. Redwood Road in West Valley City — valued at more than $1.3 million, according to the Salt Lake County Assessor’s office — is owned by a California company, De Anza Land and Leisure Corp, which also owns two drive-in theaters in Southern California.

Representatives from De Anza and EDGEHomes did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Items for sale at the Redwood Drive-In Swap Meet on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

The West Valley City planning commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday to decide whether to make a recommendation to the City Council about EDGEHomes’ zoning request. The meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m., at West Valley City Hall, 3600 S. Constitution Blvd.

Pastorik said his agency has received “hundreds” of emails and calls from sellers and buyers at the swap meet, opposed to the rezoning.

The Dominguezes said they learned about the possible redevelopment from someone on the area’s security team last week. Last weekend, vendors were given flyers with titles such as “Save the Swap Meet” and “Salva El Swap Meet,” with information on the possible development.

Word spreads fast, said Cristian Gutierrez, a vendor and an advocate for the community. Gutierrez has started an online petition to oppose the rezoning; as of Monday afternoon, the petition had gathered more than 14,000 signatures.

Between 500 and 700 vendors would be displaced if the rezoning is approved and the development is built, Gutierrez said — along with the thousands of people who visit the swap meet, sell wares and live in West Valley City.

Guiterrez said he found out about the Redwood rezoning proposal when he looked at a public bulletin board at City Hall. It’s a habit he and a group of others began three years ago when there was another attempt by a different company to build on the site. At that time, supporters of the theater and swap meet got that developer to withdraw its petition.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maya Dominguez talks about the Redwood Drive-In Swap Meet on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

‘We look after each other’

Maya and Joey Dominguez started coming to the swap meet 15 years ago. They also saw movies at the drive-in when they were first dating.

Maya Dominguez gets emotional when talking about the possibility of the swap meet going away.

She tells stories of the friends they have made over the years — such as the 84-year-old man who has a reserved seat in their booth. He hasn’t shared his phone number, but without fail, he comes every week to talk to them about his family.

Another vendor, Maya said, gave her socks to take home with her when word spread that she was going to visit her mother in Guatemala.

“We look after each other,” she said.

Last year, when she was sick, Maya said coming to the swap meet and being around people made her feel better.

“We need places where people can be real, and here is a real thing,” she said.

For Ezequiel Medina, a vendor who said he sells “Chicano culture stuff” like CDs and model toy cars, coming to the swap meet is a generational event.

Medina said his dad has been at the swap meet for more than 30 years, and as a child, he would come every Saturday and Sunday. He has memories of treating the swap meet as a “playground.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ezequiel Medinahas been coming to the Redwood Drive-In Swap Meet since he was a young boy. on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

“You see new stuff, old stuff, like you just find anything,” Medina said.

A walk through the grounds bears this out. One vendor sells shoes; the next, fresh fruit and spices. At others, one can find cultural objects, clothing, traditional cookware, and all types of Latin candy and makeup.

Being part of the swap meet, Medina said, is a lifestyle.

“It’s people’s dreams, too. People want to have their little business,” he said, and it’s a gathering of cultures.

Aracely España is from Guatemala and her husband is from Mexico. She sells hand-painted pottery from artists in Mexico that the couple buys on their trips. They have been selling at the swap meet for eight years.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aracely España at the Redwood Drive-In Swap Meet on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

She said the swap meet signifies a lot because she works at the swap meet, and through that, she is able to help her family. She said if the swap meet goes away, she would feel bad because “many people depend on the swap meet for work” — including elderly people, and people without a spouse.

Another vendor, Wais — who only goes by his first name — is from Afghanistan, and has been at the swap meet for more than 15 years. He said he has sold “everything” at the swap meet, from shoes to electronics.

The swap meet, he said, is a year-round, snow-or-sun event for those who sell and rent spaces. He said it’s “an icon” for West Valley City, and a place where people can find wares at an affordable price.

“All of these people, they are not rich. They don’t go to a lot of these stores,” Wais said. “They come in here to get something similar for a discount because they cannot afford to go over there.”

It also is a place where bargaining is entertained and even welcomed. Wais does that when a customer asks about the price of a stack of long-sleeved shirts. Wais tells the customer that the shirts are usually $12, but he’ll sell them for $10 a piece.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wais sells sunglasses, t-shirts and shoes at the Redwood Drive-In Swap Meet on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

Redwood Drive-In’s long history

The development, if it happens, would disrupt some 70 years of history with the swap meet, Gutierrez said.

The Redwood Drive-In opened on July 22, 1949 — its 75th anniversary happens in just over a month — and the swap meet dates back to at least 1960. It is the last drive-in movie theater on the Wasatch Front, after news last month that the Coleman’s Motor-Vu Drive-In in Riverdale, in Weber County, was slated for demolition to make room for a housing development.

Three other drive-in movie theaters remain open in Utah, all in rural areas: The Erda Drive-In in Erda, in Tooele County; the Echo Drive-In in Roosevelt, in Duchesne County; and the Basin Drive-In in Mt. Pleasant, in Sanpete County.

The Redwood Drive-In and Swap Meet is one of several Utah cultural landmarks whose futures have been in doubt recently.

Last week, West Valley City officials backed off from a proposal to close the West Valley City Performing Arts Center, after a public backlash. And discussions about an “entertainment district” in downtown Salt Lake City have made fans concerned about the fate of Abravanel Hall and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Items for sale at the Redwood Drive-In Swap Meet on Saturday, June 8, 2024.

Pastorik explained that the community development department that he runs processes the applications for changing the zoning on properties, but he doesn’t make the decisions.

“A zone change request first goes to the planning commission,” he said, adding that the commission could approve the zoning change, deny it, or table it for more information or research. Any recommendation would then go to the City Council, which makes the final decision.

When a developer applies to change the zoning on land it doesn’t own, Pastorik said, the developer must get the owner’s permission.

EDGEHomes’ proposal, he said, is “to build a mix of different housing on the property … condos, townhomes and single-family homes.”

Swap meet vendors plan to gather for a protest at West Valley City Hall before Wednesday’s planning commission meeting, starting at 2 p.m, Gutierrez said.

“A lot of the vendors here start off small,” Guiterrez said, citing himself as an example — his success at the swap meet allowed him to open a physical location for his women’s clothing store, ElementMe, in South Salt Lake.

“Most of these people are entrepreneurs and they are trying to figure out how to grow,” he said, “and the swap meet is a perfect startup place to do everything.”

(Cristian Gutierrez) An aerial view of the Redwood Road Swap Meet.