George Pyle: Trouble, right here in Salt Lake City

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chelsie Kemper at a rally against the Inland Port at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.

Sometimes, things work out OK in spite of dubious beginnings.

Consider, for example, that at the end of “The Music Man,” the town of River City, Iowa, actually had itself a functioning boys’ brass band that could march down Main Street playing Beethoven’s Minuet in G.

Not all that well, perhaps. But it was there.

The 76 trombones, 101 cornets and rows and rows of piccolos that also appeared were a cinematic dream sequence. But, hey, you have to start somewhere.

Jack Hedge is no Professor Harold Hill. And not just because that was a phony name for a fictional character.

Hedge is the executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority. As such, he is not so much Harold Hill as the man who was brought in to direct the River City Boys Band after Hill skipped town — which we all knew he would, with or without Marion the Librarian — in the sequel that never happened because it would have been far too dull a movie.

The creation of the inland port, after all, was a scam. It was fast-talked through the Utah Legislature, at the last minute, with minimal public input — and no hit songs — by politicians who much more closely resemble the confidence man supposedly from Gary, Indiana.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to remain so.

Hedge and a few of his staff were kind enough to meet with The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board — by Zoom, of course — to bring us up to speed on the port plans.

When the Legislature created the authority, there was little question that the point of it was to accelerate the likely path of development in the area that makes up practically the northwest quarter of Salt Lake City.

Positioned as it is at the intersection of two Interstate highways, along major rail lines and near an expanding international airport in a booming metropolitan area, it should surprise no one that the tract’s future is likely to be a spot for shipping and moving things from one mode of transportation to another.

(Well, except that it’s a mosquito-infested swamp on the edge of an area that already serves as a magnificent intermodal hub for migrating birds. No matter.)

The first version of the legislation basically removed the area — and the tax base that was likely to swell there — from the control of Salt Lake City and gave it to the appointed board. In that iteration, the point was clearly to sweep aside any environmental qualms the more liberal city officials might have.

But after protests and lawsuits, the Legislature came back to make the whole plan rather less offensive. It gave the city back much of the development oversight and a good chunk of the money — some of which will be earmarked to support development of affordable housing in the city.

And now — at least, to hear Hedge tell it — the point is not so much to rush the development of the area as to make it less awful. Maybe much less.

The seed money provided by the state and the increased property tax revenue that will flow as the port area shifts from dirt to rooftop is, we are told, going into sustainable infrastructure. Things like electric vehicle charging stations, natural gas fueling systems. And there will be nudges and pulls to green it up further, with electric vehicles and state-of-the-art building standards.

The plan also counts on all vehicles getting cleaner and touts the fact that trains over trucks are a net positive for the environment. And it assumes that such a well-run, well-located port will attract not just jobs in shipping and warehousing but also much better paid manufacturing and design jobs because such places also care about logistics.

The hope is that, 50 years from now, we’ll be able to look back and see a large industrial park that is, at the very least, a lot less dirty than whatever would have eventually filled in there incrementally.

The problem is, it will take us 50 years to find out if that’s what happened. And, if it doesn’t, it will be too late.

The key, absent the city winning its lawsuit and overturning the creation of the Port Authority altogether, is an understanding on the part of all concerned that international shippers and makers need to be here more than we need them.

The place is already growing by leaps and cranes. We don’t have room for the people who want to live here now. If businesses with their eye on our inland port don’t want to play ball by our rules, we can pass.

We must be, in Harold Hill’s words, the older but wiser girl, Marion the Librarian, who sees through all the hype.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is good friends with a guy who once played the anvil salesman in a community theater production of “The Music Man.”


Twitter, @debatestate