(This article first appeared in the May 1, 2018 issue of the San Juan Record)
By Zak Podmore
San Juan County is moving forward with a new economic development initiative, and a motel in Bluff could be the first to benefit.
In December, the San Juan County Commission voted to create a Community Reinvestment Agency, which is a separate legal entity maintained by a board made up of all three county commissioners.
The agency has the authority to create Community Reinvestment Areas (CRAs) throughout the county, in the hopes of spurring economic growth in targeted areas.
Development projects within designated CRAs would receive tax incentives to pursue projects that will create jobs and generate an increase in future tax revenue.
Natalie Randall, the San Juan County Economic Development Director, explains that CRAs are common in other parts of Utah, such as the Wasatch Front, to help bring in multiple businesses such as strip malls and box stores.
In San Juan County, the projects that are currently being considered are tourist developments.
“We view it as an economic development tool, with the primary purpose to provide tax increment finance investment in future projects,” Randall said.
On February 20, the commissioners, acting as the Community Reinvestment Agency, adopted a resolution to start the process of creating the county’s first CRA in Bluff.
They identified an area of land in Cow Canyon owned by Bluff Dwellings, LLC, a company run by Jared Berrett. Berrett also owns and operates Four Corners Adventures in Blanding and Wild Rivers Expeditions in Bluff.
Bluff Dwellings Resort is an upscale 54-unit lodging facility currently under construction on the north end of town.
“The big picture with Bluff Dwellings Resort is to provide a unique experience where people can come into the region and become educated about Native American culture,” Berrett said.
Interpretive panels will be interspersed throughout the complex’s 15-building layout to walk guests through the area’s archaeological history.
A draft proposal submitted for the CRA project also describes plans for a spa and “a large outdoor pool and patio complex including a beach entry pool, rock and water features, jacuzzi, and a small food and smoothie shack.”
From the motel, Berrett says visitors will be able to join one of his tour companies to go on a hike, rent a Jeep, or float the San Juan.
“Rivers, ruins, and canyons is kind of our core mantra,” he said. “We want to create a great place where people can come learn and enjoy and have an experience where they can’t get anywhere else.”
Berrett is also considering the addition of a ropes course at some point for education groups, and while there are no current plans for other amusement features on the site like ziplines, Berrett said, “I can’t say never ever.”
His current focus, however, is to give guests “a unique wilderness educational experience” and to leave adventure elements like ziplines and RZR rides to Moab.
Berrett’s vision attracted state-wide attention, even before opening its doors. In February, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development dubbed Bluff Dwellings the Rural Business of the Year for San Juan County.
In all, Bluff Dwellings will require at least a $6 million investment. Berrett estimates this is one of the largest private projects the county has seen in recent years, and he approached the county for some funding help through the new CRA program to ensure the project’s completion.
According to the latest draft of the CRA plan and budget, Bluff Dwellings is requesting $458,000 in tax reimbursement over a five to 20 year period. Of the total, $300,000 would go to building a new turning lane on the highway, and the remainder would provide utilities infrastructure such as electric and water connections.
Current property taxes would continue to flow to taxing entities for the area, which include the county and the Bluff Service Area, as well as the school, health, and water districts.
If approved, 75 percent of new property taxes that are assessed for the development after it is complete will then be reimbursed to Bluff Dwellings through the CRA until the $458,000 is paid back. The other 25 percent will go to taxing entities.
Randall said it is typical to use CRAs to assist with “horizontal infrastructure needs” like is being requested in the Bluff Dwellings project. Future CRAs could help develop infrastructure for multiple businesses within a designated area.
“With Bluff Dwellings, it’s only one business,” Randall explained. “Ideally what we’d like to see is a Community Reinvestment Area [that] includes and benefits multiple businesses.
“Think of Spanish Valley. That will be a great location to have a CRA to recruit new businesses to come or existing businesses to grow within that area.”
At a meeting in February, the county commission discussed the possibility of making Goulding’s in Monument Valley into a CRA, but no official proposal has been put forward.
The City of Blanding created a separate Community Reinvestment Agency to work within city limits, and the agency is considering using the program for a motel project there.
On April 30, the Bluff Service Area Board held a special meeting to discuss the CRA effort. No one from the Economic Development Office, Bluff Dwellings, or the county commission attended, and there was confusion on the CRA statutes.
Board members noted that they only received notice of the project area proposal in mid-April, nearly two months after the county commissioners voted to begin the process of creating a CRA in Bluff.
Bluff is set to incorporate as a town in January, and elections for the town council and mayor will take place this summer.
After incorporation, the Bluff Council could create its own Community Reinvestment Agency.
Mayoral candidate Marcia Hadenfeldt told the Record, “In an ideal world, I would like for Bluff to have a hand on the wheel for this project. We don’t have the right to hold up the process, but the timetable is frustrating.”
Ann Leppanen, who is also running for mayor, recommended the county put the CRA on hold until Bluff incorporates.
There are still several steps before the Bluff Dwellings CRA is approved. A public hearing will be held at the Hideout in Monticello on May 15 at 11 a.m. to consider adoption of the proposed plan and budget.
If adopted, interlocal agreements will then be negotiated between taxing entities, Bluff Dwellings, and the agency. The CRA could be finalized as soon as July 15.