Sandy • Community angst over breakneck growth is what first swept Tom Dolan into the Sandy mayor’s office 24 years ago.
After his election loss last week, it looks like those same concerns swept him out.
“I actually thought about that — it’s interesting,” Dolan, 73, said during an interview in his office two days after he lost his bid for an unheard of seventh term. “And yet I don’t regret any of the things that I’ve done.”
He’s quick to acknowledge the likelihood that not everyone feels the same. Last week’s polls bear that out: His opponent and the city’s next mayor, state attorney and political novice Kurt Bradburn, campaigned heartily on the “time for change” plank. He decried Dolan as a charter member of the “good ol’ boys club” — in the thrall of developers, lobbyists and corporate cronies seeking government handouts. Bradburn beat Dolan in a walk, by 14 percentage points.
If the outcome wasn’t entirely a surprise, Dolan concedes that the margin was.
“Now that I’ve had a couple days to think about it, I think it’s just the turmoil of growth,” he said. “People are upset about the high-density housing, those kinds of things, all of which are inevitable. You can’t get away from it.”
“I’m pleased with six terms and I’m OK with not winning another term.”
— Tom Dolan.
Bradburn did indeed criticize those under-construction or just-built apartment buildings, decrying the Dolan administration’s “obsession with high-density housing, shortsighted decisions, and dismissive attitude toward residents.”
And it got personal: On his campaign website, Bradburn even alleged that Dolan “frequently falls asleep or yells at residents during public meetings.”
Dolan demurred on responding to the more personal of those attacks. But on the development question, he gave no quarter.
“There’s 30,000 acres of developable land left in Salt Lake County, and so it just means you gotta go up,” he said. “You have younger generations that don’t necessarily want a single-family home. They want a town home or condo, or they want to live in an apartment.
“Where are we going to put the people?” he continued. “You can’t close your door and say, ‘Go somewhere else.’ I heard those same things when I first moved to Sandy, about ‘Oh, the schools are overcrowded and we need to stop this development.’ We’ve got a huge housing shortage in this county, in every respect. And that’s not going to slow down.”
The population boom begins
When Dolan, then in pharmaceutical sales, arrived in Sandy with his family in 1979, the city was finishing a decade of outrageous growth that led every community in the United States. From 6,500 residents in 1970, Sandy swelled to more than 52,000 a decade later, an astounding 711 percent growth rate. It grew by 44 percent over the next 10 years, to 75,000, and during 1990s by a service-stretching 18 percent.
Growth, among other factors, seemed to take its toll on Sandy’s mayors. In fact, none had managed to win a second term since the 1930s by the time Dolan was first elected in 1993.
“Prior to my first election, the city was in turmoil,” he said, adding that he didn’t expect to last any longer than his predecessors. Leading up to 1993, he’d been involved with the Chamber of Commerce, the Historic Committee and the mayor’s budget advisory committee.
When he tried to get one of his friends to run for mayor, “They turned around and said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’” he recalled.
At the time, Sandy’s modest tax base meant it had the highest property taxes in the state, Dolan said. As mayor, he wanted to reverse that. Growth in the 1990s led to stability — economically for the city and politically for him.
“As we established a stronger tax base, we provided more services, and I think that sustained me through the years — the stability of the city, the planned growth of the city.”
Dolan uses the word “growth” frequently in conversation, typically in combination with words like “managed” or “inevitable.”
“Growth’s going to happen,” he said. “You either plan for it or you don’t.”
Here’s some of what Sandy’s growth has looked like over Dolan’s tenure:
• Two shopping malls — one with nearly 1 million square feet of retail space.
• The 450,000-square foot South Town convention center.
• The 25,000-seat Rio Tinto soccer stadium for Real Salt Lake.
• A movie theater and entertainment complex.
• The two-stage, 1,350-seat Hale Centre Theatre, now nearing completion.
• Thousands of new housing units, new and improved roads and the public works to handle them.
All that development has been good for the city and for taxpayers, Dolan says. Before a 4 percent property tax hike in 2015, Dolan said the city cut property taxes by 12 percent since he first took office.
Sandy didn’t only add new construction. Dolan estimated the city has spent as much as $60 million buying property for new parks and developing them. It has added more than 5,000 new, mostly “high-tech, well-paying” jobs in the past four years, he said. When Mountain America credit union’s new office opens, that will mean 1,500 more.
Then there are the less-tangible assets that delivered real benefits, mainly in the form of cash. All told, Dolan estimated that the relationships he forged throughout government, the influence he amassed, and his ability to wrangle and cajole on the city’s behalf led directly to some $300 million in state and federal aid for all sorts of public works in just the past 15 years.
Getting what he wanted
If both the scope and pace of Sandy’s growth had their detractors, so, too, did Dolan’s methods for attracting and promoting them. Citing Sandy’s need to have a presence in the Utah Capitol and in Washington, Dolan year in and year out has fielded the largest army of city lobbyists in the state at a cost of up to $500,000 a year.
“He is a hard guy not to like, but if he wanted something, he was going to do his best to get what he wanted, even if he had to run you over.”
— Former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.
A Republican, Dolan also worked personal and partisan connections to get what he wanted. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson cited the Rio Tinto soccer stadium as a case in point: Completed in 2008, the venue endured repeated brushes with near death until the state approved an infusion of $35 million in public funding to help get the $110 million project built.
“On a personal level, Tom was a great guy to get along with, always gracious, a good sense of humor,” Anderson said, recalling their dealings. “His view was Sandy shouldn’t be in competition with Salt Lake City, and for Sandy to be great, the capital had to be great, too.
“I do think he meant that, but I also think that when he could get what he wanted for his city, he had the political savvy to make it happen,” Anderson continued. The stadium deal, he said, was the “worst kind of politics, in my view. Everyone got something that really didn’t make much sense on the merits.”
Former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, a Democrat like Anderson, offered a similar appraisal.
“He is a hard guy not to like, but if he wanted something, he was going to do his best to get what he wanted, even if he had to run you over,” Corroon said. Dolan, he added, was a “masterful politician” who was “able to get a lot of things that many other mayors just dreamed about.”
Those achievements weren’t all bricks and mortar. Corroon’s successor and the current Salt Lake County mayor, Ben McAdams, who called Dolan a “transformational leader for Sandy,” praised him for collaborating on efforts to protect the valley watershed, preserve the Wasatch range, and ease traffic congestion in the canyons. The two men shared an award for some of those efforts from Save Our Canyons, an environmental group.
“Tom Dolan’s not a hiker or a mountain biker, but he did share our interest in protecting the canyons for future generations,” McAdams said. “I’ve really enjoyed serving with him, and I’m going to miss him.”
Career highs and lows
Dolan said the greatest achievement of his tenure was the 2007 controversial creation of the Canyons School District — in part a consequence of the development he worked hard to promote. Split off from the Jordan School District in a referendum, the district now serves 33,000 students in Alta, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Midvale and Sandy. As the biggest community, Sandy led the way.
“We were the only city large enough to put it on the ballot,” Dolan said. The other cities then joined.
Among the most fraught episodes: the city’s 1994 scuffle with Utah Power & Light, now Rocky Mountain Power, over the cost of burying overhead high-voltage transmission lines. The two sides eventually reached agreement but not before the utility briefly shut off power to part of the city.
“I was a new mayor and I’m fighting one of the most powerful organizations in the state,” Dolan recalled. “They made that decision to shut the power off. We actually went and leased big transformers in the city to provide power.”
More than a decade later, in 2006, came division and protest over the proposed Quarry Bend shopping center on the site of the city’s gravel pit. An activist group sued to stop the development and forced an unsuccessful referendum to block the project.
Tax revenue the development later delivered helped Sandy get through the Great Recession with no tax increases and only two layoffs, he said.
“I’m pleased with six terms, and I’m OK with not winning another term,” he said, describing plans to spend more time with his wife and family, which includes four grandchildren, and in service to the Mormon church.
When he called to concede to Bradburn on Tuesday, he offered to help the city’s next mayor in any way he can. But asked for what advice he would pass along to his successor, he demurred again.
Unsought advice is “a waste of time,” Dolan said. “I don’t know if he wants to hear anything from me.”