Helper • When coal mining went bust, Helper made a bet on arts and tourism. Now the pandemic has made those industries fizzle, too, with beloved cultural events canceled and travelers keeping their distance.
But whether the coronavirus has brought the town to its knees again depends on who’s being asked.
Cindy Lund has worked with the county to develop a new motto — “Carbon under pressure makes diamonds.” They’re encouraging visitors to treasure hunt at Helper businesses throughout the summer and fall — even if rising COVID-19 cases force more closures.
“We’re going to stay strong and get stuff done during these tough times,” she said.
Cindy and her husband, Tom Lund, opened their Castle Gate RV Park just over a year ago. While their first season brought tourists from all over the world, their customers this year have mostly been local. Still, they remain optimistic.
RV camping is arguably one of the best ways to vacation during a pandemic, Tom Lund said.
“They bring their own bed, their own bathroom. They’ve got plenty of space between their site and the next site,” he said.
The story is different on the other side of town, at the Riverside Motel. Angel Villa, part-owner of the motel, said less than half of his rooms are booked.
“Last year was full every day,” Villa said.
Now, almost all of the property’s occupied rooms are from long-term renters, he added.
“If I didn’t have those monthlies,[it’d] probably [be] empty,” Villa said. “The motel has been affected, bad.”
Helper’s story is well known at this point — a classic Western boomtown that went bust in the 1980s when the coal mining and rail industries took a dive. When a few high-profile artists relocated to the area in search of solitude, and began offering workshops for emerging talent, the city rebranded itself as an arts destination. Helper became known for its Arts Festival, which marked its 25th year in August, as well as an annual Butch Cassidy Film Festival and Outlaw Car Show, which lured even more transplants.
Most recently, the town of about 2,200 people has sought to capitalize on its natural assets — stunning sandstone Book Cliffs, the Price River, miles of ATV trails, as well as nearby mountain biking, rock climbing and hunting. Not to mention it’s a perfect stopover point halfway between Salt Lake City and Moab.
The rebranding effort seems to have worked — once vacant, dilapidated buildings on Main Street now house motorcycle museums, coffee shops, Airbnbs, eateries and lots of art galleries. The median household income in 2018 was $53,309, according to U.S. Census information, compared with $40,000 in 2010 (although it still lags behind the state’s median income of $68,374).
Then the pandemic came to town. The art festival is canceled, museums are closed and people worry about getting sick.
“We’ve been banking on tourism now because the coal industry has taken a hit,” said Tom King, general manager at the scenic Carbon Country Club. “[Now] there’s no weddings, anniversaries or tournaments. We can’t have those large get-togethers.”
King worked with the local health department to keep the golf course open, but his restaurant and snack bar were closed until May 15. His dining revenue is down by about 65% and sales at the pro shop are down by 70%, he said.
“I am worried about tourism,” King said. “A lot of [our business] has been locals, bored and tired of staying at home.”
Perfect place for artists
While Utah’s rate of COVID-19 cases continues to set daily records, hitting 867 confirmed infections on Friday, Carbon County has remained relatively untouched by the disease. To date, the Southeast Utah Health Department reports only 21 cases of COVID-19 in Carbon County. Fifteen of those cases have recovered. Only one person in the entire multi-county health district has been hospitalized.
In Helper, established artists seem to be feeling less pain from the pandemic compared to other area business owners. Older ones and those with existing medical conditions offer face masks, sanitizer and limited gallery hours, or have simply closed shop. Public health experts continually stress the importance of social distancing during the pandemic. Turns out, that’s something many artists are already inclined to do.
“The pandemic is a nasty surprise, but ... for us, we’re pretty isolated anyway,” said traditional and digital media artist Tom Ogburn, who recently relocated from Santa Fe, N.M. “That part of it doesn’t change, but going to the store is scary.”
University of Utah art instructor David Dornan came to Helper in the mid-1990s to start an art school.
“This is a perfect place for artists because there’s nothing to do but be with yourself,” he said.
He said the town’s rural population density has helped isolate residents from COVID-19. It also helped insulate Helper from the housing crisis in 2008, Dornan said, since prices never climbed as high as in urban areas. “People are meant to live in communities this size, I’ve always said that,” Dornan said.
Painter Ben Steele, a former student of Dornan’s, said the galleries he works with from around the United State are still making sales.
“That might have to do with the fact that the clientele is a wealthy clientele, buying original art. From what I hear, they’re doing OK,” Steele said.
Helper’s solitude is also an asset pushed by those promoting tourism — you’re not likely to run into the crowds you see at national parks farther south. But isolation isn’t always the best way to stay in business.
Jalynn Snider has operated a small salon on Main Street for 14 years. She’s used to an international clientele.
“I get them from all over the world — travelers from France, Italy; I’ve had them from Australia and Sweden,” Snider said.
The spring’s forced closures took a financial toll. Snider applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and was denied. But now that it’s allowed to reopen, Snider’s salon isn’t allowing walk-ins and only books locals. She doesn’t want visitors bringing the coronavirus to town.
“One gentleman passing through says ‘But I’ve got a mask.’ But I said, ‘I don’t know where you’re from,’ ” she said. “I’m not going to risk it.”
Clay Iorg, who co-owns the Balance Rock Eatery and Pub, said he’s seeing a lot of empty tables. Normally the restaurant would have been packed during the tourist season, especially on weekends. Sales are down by about 70%.
“There’s nothing steady about America right now. I think rural America is getting tired of all of it,” Iorg said.
He used a Paycheck Protection Program loan to get his businesses through pandemic closures — he also co-owns a coffee shop and market in town. But Iorg said too much of the economic attention seems to be paid to the “new Helper” instead of other parts of the community that were in need long before the pandemic.
Tourism isn’t enough to sustain everyone in town.
“In Helper, I hate to say it, most people are focused on Main Street and the artists. But the locals, there’s a lot of poverty,” he said.
Case in point, Balance Rock Eatery scrambled to make 600 breakfasts and lunches daily for area children during spring break, when low-income families couldn’t depend on those meals from schools.
Art galleries “don’t pay any sales tax, they don’t help this community. They’re all for show,” Iorg said.
Elected officials and other community leaders have worked to bridge the “old” Helper with the “new.” In 2017, the city introduced first Friday art walks.
“That opened all these galleries to the local people and the galleries tried to come up with things that were not $50,000, like free food and live music,” said Cindy Lund, the RV Park owner, who also volunteers as a tourism ambassador for Carbon County.
Residents recently rallied together on a Main Street beautification project, spearheaded by Mayor Lenise Peterman, adding planter boxes, benches, trees and traffic calmers.
“The Main Street you see today was built by our citizens,” she said. “Those types of things, they’re really kind of intangible but invaluable for building a community.”
Each fall and spring, the mayor worked with area middle school students on restoration of the Price River.
“I’m trying to have them embrace being stewards of the river and the community,” Peterman said.
Social distancing during the pandemic, however, means no more gallery strolls and no more school river projects. It means the city’s already modest budget will take a hit with loss of sales tax and tourism tax revenue. Still, Peterman is banking on strategies to make Helper better for residents and visitors alike.
She recently secured $16,000 in grants to move forward with a wayfinding project, which will point people to assets like the ballpark and riverwalk, and, possibly, entice motorists to take the exit off Highway 191 to spend some time exploring Helper.
“Come back in a year. It’ll be a different dynamic,” Peterman said. “You should see the people coming through here.”