Tiny Toquerville wants 600 acres of public land for massive recreation destination

To build the West’s largest sports park, city officials have partnered with Utah developers with a troubling history of conflict and bankruptcy.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Land owned by the Bureau of Land Management adjacent to Interstate 15 in Washington County, Thursday, May 12, 2022. The town of Toquerville is looking to acquire the land that private developers would turn into a sprawling recreational complex, with parks, trails and a charter school.

An RV park, wave pool, 32 ball fields, a charter school and a 150,000-square-foot recreation center. A small southern Utah town envisions this and a lot more for a sprawling sports-oriented tourist destination on public lands near the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

The $65 million plan calls for a massive complex with enough asphalt to park 6,000 cars — more than triple the number of people currently living in Toquerville — according to an application the town submitted to the Bureau of Land Management to acquire 607 acres of public land along Interstate 15 about 20 miles north of St. George.

Toquerville officials made the request under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, (R&PP) a 1954 law that enables local governments to secure public land for parks, schools and other public facilities.

The small town of Toquerville in fast-growing Washington County is looking to obtain a block of BLM land along Interstate 15 that would be developed into a massive recreation complex and charter school by private developers.

“There’s a huge demand in southern Utah for fields, we just don’t have it,” Mayor Keen Ellsworth said. “There’s so many tournaments take place here, but we don’t have the capacity for them. That’s creating a huge strain on St. George and all of Washington County, especially when we have bad weather.”

Isabel Adler, public lands director for Conserve Southwest Utah, blasted the project as a “clear abuse” of the R&PP.

“Nothing underscores that more than the fact that they’re putting this luxury hotel next door to this so-called public facility,” she said. “It’s just ridiculous to make the claim that this is a project needed by the Toquerville community because it’s so clearly meant to serve people from outside Washington County.”

Making this proposal even more unusual is the town’s plan to have the facilities financed, built and operated by private entities. In this case, the city is working with two Utah developers, Mike Morley and Frank Tusieseina, whose past projects in Utah and Salt Lake counties have been mired in controversy or failure.

Toquerville lacks the resources needed to pull off such an ambitious plan, so it has partnered with Morley’s firm American Charter Development (ACD) and Tusieseina’s Eastward Management Group to make it happen, according to a letter Ellsworth wrote to the BLM. Still the project would remain under the city’s control.

“This was always intended to be a City project, not a private one,” Ellsworth wrote. “All profits (if any) will be reinvested into the development. There are no profits being generated for any private parties.”

Tusieseina’s Sports World Events Center collapsed shortly after opening in 2017, according to court records. Creditors who took over the failed project, housed in a converted Salt Lake City warehouse, have been battling Tusieseina in bankruptcy court, accusing the developer of defrauding them and siphoning off the center’s resources.

Tusieseina’s lawyers are contesting those accusations, which he says have no bearing on the Toquerville project.

“You have partners, it doesn’t go well, it ends up badly, but it certainly doesn’t preclude people from continuing to try to bid another project,” Tusieseina said. “There’s nothing to worry about. We’re a solid group. We have the expertise.”

Described as the West’s largest sports park, the new project, known as the Toquerville Athletic Recreation Complex, or the ARC, would occupy land between Leeds and Toquerville, on the west side of the freeway and next to an interchange serving traffic bound for Zion National Park. Tusieseina meanwhile is seeking to develop a five-star resort called Zion’s Landing, with 1,000 hotel rooms, on adjoining private land.

“When the tournament people come into town and they don’t have amenities and accommodations, guess what? They pick up their tournaments, they go to Mesquite [Nev.] or somewhere else and they take with them the jobs and the dollars,” Tusieseina said. “This is about smart growth and accommodations.”

There are no schools within Toquerville and the Washington County School District has none on the drawing board for the town, hence the need for the proposed charter high school, according to the city.

“By working with non-profit organizations, Toquerville intends to create a world-class facility for its high school students‚” the city’s development plan states. Students and staff at the proposed Jim Thorpe Academy, named for the Native American athlete who won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics, would work at the park under internships provided by Dixie State University, according to the plan.

In addition to a 700-student high school, the $65 million plan calls for a 150,000-square-foot indoor sports facility, conference center, 18 full-sized fields, 16 baseball fields and 60 pickleball courts.

“Weaving through the entire park will be a network of mountain biking and walking paths and hiking trails as part of an adventurous landscape of campgrounds, RV areas, parks, playgrounds, pavilions and ponds,” states a promotional video posted by Eastward. Built to accommodate major regional, national and international events, this complex will attract tournaments, camps and festivals that will generate significant tax revenue and help grow the local economy by providing income and employment opportunities.”

Also proposed are a 20-acre “beach resort,” with an Olympic-size wave pool and volleyball courts, a Native American cultural center, and a shuttle connection to Zion.

Eastward would develop and operate the recreational amenities, while ACD would build the school’s “leadership campus” and raise funding for the entire project through bond financing, according to documents.

Ellsworth, however, said the city has finalized no agreements with either developer.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Isabel Adler, public lands director for Conserve Southwest Utah, blasted the project as a “clear abuse” of the R&PP.

Before any of this development can occur, the BLM has to approve the land transfer, which will be the subject of an environmental review that will soon be initiated.

Environmental groups contend the proposal spells trouble for a region already under intense development pressure, especially in the face of dwindling water supplies. While most of the sports fields would be on artificial turf, the city’s documents do not indicate where the water would come from to support the recreation facilities and neighboring resort.

“Why this is so egregious is that public lands are meant for the public. We are not in the business of allowing exchanges and projects to move forward that clearly benefit private interests on our public lands,” Adler said. “A project like this sets an incredibly dangerous precedent for private interests to go in and abuse these loopholes meant to serve communities, meant to provide facilities that actually meet some sort of demand at the scale that the community needs.”

A small historic town of 1,800 that thousands of people pass through on their way to Zion National Park, Toquerville is hemmed on all sides by public land and multiple bids are underway to transfer neighboring land to municipal or private ownership. It doesn’t have a single commercial business.

The ARC project and Zion’s Landing have no connection with a proposal to privatize up to 2,033 acres of public land immediately west of Toquerville through a land exchange the BLM is considering with a Garfield County ranch. In that deal, the BLM would acquire 2,680 acres of private inholdings in the remote Henry Mountains.

Should both proposals win approval, the area’s developed footprint would expand greatly, filling much of the open space between Toquerville and Leeds with subdivisions, commercial districts and recreational amenities.

“The county seems to enact planning policies that just promote sprawl out into the desert,” Adler said, “when we should be working with the land that we have already, promoting more urban density. But instead, this county seems to think that it’s better to acquire public lands and continue sprawling out into the resources that draw people here in the first place.”

But the city frames its proposal as an effort to meet the public’s hunger for recreational and educational facilities. Considering most of the land in Washington County is federally owned and unavailable, it makes sense to free some up for development, according to Toquerville’s petition to the BLM.

The ARC project “will not only support the current trends of growth in our City, but it has a footprint that can provide sustainable expansion for the next 50-plus years,” the document states. “The site will provide a natural setting that will maintain the unique landscape and surroundings that the region is known for as the gateway to our national parks.”

The town says it’s bracing for the addition of 7,500 homes over the next decade, a more than 10-fold increase in its current housing stock.

“If I could wave a magic wand and stop growth, I would, but you can’t do that,” Ellsworth said. “Southern Utah is just getting inundated with growth. Just overflowing. If we don’t approach it head on, in other words, try to manage that growth, it’ll destroy our little city.”

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