West Valley City mayoral candidates speak to a big challenge: Getting residents to stay

Council members Karen Lang and Steve Buhler want Utah’s second most-populous city to be a place for everyone and retain its hometown feel.

(Courtesy photos) West Valley City mayoral candidates Steve Buhler and Karen Lang.

West Valley City • Will West Valley City keep some of its small-town character or will rapid growth transform Utah’s second most-populous city?

That question — and what it means for development, transportation and quality of life for its 140,230 residents — is central to this year’s municipal elections, including the two-way race to become the city’s next mayor.

With incumbent Ron Bigelow not seeking another four-year term, the next mayor will be one of two City Council members who have shared at least a decade of public service on West Valley City’s behalf.

The finalists are business owner Karen Lang, who has represented District 3 since 2011, and attorney Steve Buhler, who has done the same for District 2 since 2009.

Two other candidates, council member Tom Huynh and business owner Arnold Jones, were eliminated in an August primary that saw Lang capture more than 40% of the votes, followed by Buhler with nearly 28%.

Here is a look at their visions for the city:

Keeping that hometown feel

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Karen Lang, current West Valley City Council member for District 3, is running for the mayoral seat, Oct. 9, 2021.

Two Weimaraner dogs roam around Oakbridge Greenhouse, the commercial garden center Lang and her husband, Brian, opened 38 years ago. This time of year, no plants are in sight around the shop as Lang sits for an interview; there are just a few chairs, dog beds and supplies that will be useful come spring.

It is clearly a family business. Lang recalls her children and grandchildren playing and jumping on trampolines in various corners of the greenhouse through the years and frequent customers trusting the arithmetic of a 9-year-old working at the till.

Lang said her family became a steady presence in the community, and she believes those kinds of connections are worth fighting to retain.

Amid all the growth, Lang said, she yearns to keep the city’s hometown feeling, while accommodating the positive projects of commercial development, including downtown improvements and additions of hotels and medical buildings, she considers among the highlights of her time on the council.

If elected mayor, Lang said, she wants to finish what has already been started.

“We’re not going to have a lot of development unless we do redevelopment, which means taking neighborhoods, maybe taking a few houses out and putting stuff in,” she said, “but hopefully we’re not going to do that.”

Lang’s efforts would center not so much on rental units but more on opening up opportunities for all levels of single-family home buyers, “making it a community where everybody wants to stay forever.”

“We want to keep that small-town feel,” she said, “without us getting so big that we don’t know who we are.”

Connecting neighborhoods with mass transit also ranks high for Lang. Her children grew up taking public transportation to school, and now she sees the convenience of taking a bus to a TRAX train to go to work.

The Utah Transit Authority “has done a good job of keeping us connected, and making it easy to use the bus system,” she said. “We just need a few more bike lanes, and we’ll be perfect.”

In the ever-changing environment that COVID-19 brought, Lang hopes that the current employee scarcity is something that will correct itself over the next year.

If it’s up to her as mayor, she said in a Salt Lake Tribune questionnaire, federal pandemic aid could be spent on “funding for emergency preparedness and restoration of struggling businesses affected by the pandemic.”

Embracing a changing landscape

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Council member Steve Buhler, a West Valley City candidate for mayor, is shown Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.

For his part, Buhler left his downtown Salt Lake City office to open his family law practice in West Valley City some 20 years ago.

At that moment, his motivation resided in the time he wanted to spend at home in the city with his wife and three children.

And family is precisely what has kept him going. Being a lawyer has led him to be closer to community residents, who use his advice for estate planning, probate, adoption and guardianship.

In his office, black-and-white pictures of his family, along with hats donned by his father and grandfather, both Utahns, adorn the walls. Though he holds pieces of the past closely, Buhler believes that some things have to change.

Growth has meant the disappearance of some farms and the almost-rural feel of West Valley City. But that’s not the biggest issue on Buhler’s agenda. His plan focuses more on allowing families to develop their land and encouraging attractive projects that make residents want to stay — even after their financial or family situation changes.

“One problem we face is a lot of people, when they got a little successful, they left the city. They moved out to where they could find nicer housing,” Buhler said in an interview. “And so we have tried to provide more options for housing so that we have a place in the city for everybody to live.”

There are also struggles in terms of transportation, Buhler said. Roads are far from one another. When traffic jams clog streets, everyone gets affected. He believes public transportation has eased some of those burdens but argues TRAX lines should extend farther, to places like Magna, Kearns and West Jordan. There is no way that UTA accomplishes this without taking some properties, he said, but he hopes to see those routes become a reality with less impactful design options for neighborhoods.

Buhler also views retaining police officers and firefighters as a priority by offering competitive salaries, benefits, training and equipment. He worries that the pool of career-minded officers is shrinking even as the demand for their services is rising.

But, like his opponent, Buhler doesn’t claim to be a revolutionary. He wants to keep the work the City Council already started. For him, that means being open to business and friendly to developers, while drawing lines in projects that don’t improve the city.

“You’re going to have to bring something special to the city,” he said. “As a city, we can wait. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s developed in my lifetime.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.