BRYCE CANYON CITY, Garfield County Don't talk to Rod Syrett about his ego. This is about way more than ego.
The 61-year-old man is the third generation to run the company that is Garfield County's biggest employer. He has 600 workers at peak season. He has eight children and a home and resort enterprise at the gateway of one of America's most beautiful places.
But Syrett, the owner of Ruby's Inn, hasn't forgotten how Garfield County residents laughed at his granddad, Reuben "Ruby" Syrett, in the early 1900s, when the man after whom all this is named moved away from the mills and traditional work and toward tourism.
"They all laughed at him," Syrett said one day recently. "They ain't laughing now."
Indeed, no one near Utah's newest official town, Bryce Canyon City, is laughing. Most in Garfield County are mad as hornets.
"I don't think it has anything to do with ego, I think it's just about money," said Maloy Dodds, Garfield County commissioner.
And people in nearby hospitality businesses should beware, he says, because now Ruby's Inn gets $300,000 of its own sales tax revenues to use for advertising, building services or whatever will attract tourist dollars.
"I think this really puts pressure on the competition in Bryce Valley and Panguitch, and it's going to be a real drain on the businesses there," Dodds said. As a town, Ruby's Inn can also impose a resort community tax and generate even more revenue for itself.
"It just isn't right what they are doing," Dodds said. "It isn't right.""Ruby's got a real good deal," said Brent Gardner, of the Utah Association of Counties. "They got a sweetheart deal."
21st century pioneers?
In July, Bryce Canyon City, population 138, became 244th on the list of Utah cities and towns.
The now-incorporated community takes in 2,300 acres at the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park. In reality, the new Bryce Canyon City is Ruby's Inn, the now-massive Best Western resort founded by Syrett's grandfather, Reuben C. Syrett.
Everyone called him Ruby.
In the early 1900s, Ruby came to this area to homestead 160 acres. He initially ran mills but discovered a zest for tourism.
Today, Syrett's right-hand man is Jean Seiler, a former mayor of nearby Tropic, the longtime marketing director for Ruby's Inn and the de facto city manager of the new Bryce Canyon City.
"This is a new kind of pioneering," he said. "We are trying to figure out how to grow."
Because Ruby's officials first have the business to run, and with more than a million tourists visiting Bryce Canyon each year, 600 employees at the peak season and all the other responsibilities of being Garfield County's largest employer, the two haven't had much time to plan their office space or the city's next move.
The issue caught the attention of national media, too. A July story in the New York Times calls out: "In Utah, a 'Company Town' Means Just That."
Rod Syrett has said 73 of the 138 residents are his relatives. The rest work for his business. His new town council is made up of his employees, in-laws and direct relatives.
"It's bittersweet," said Kenda Porter, of the Bryce Canyon Resort property located nearby on U-12. The resort is outside of the city boundary. "A lot of people have said they are just downright greedy."
"We didn't do this out of greed," Syrett said. "We did it out of wanting to be a town."
And as a town, the company will get some financial help building sewers and water systems, sidewalks, roads and other big-ticket infrastructure items it's had to pay for in the past.
"We were having to pay for all of that out of private funds," Seiler said.
They also worry about the town's safety. If a fire breaks out, as it did a couple of years ago, it took fire crews from Tropic, in the valley below the national park, 45 minutes to chug their way over hills and roads to the hotel.
The Bryce Canyon City town council has had its first few meetings as a neophyte entity. New town officials gather in a Ruby's Inn conference room. Staff from the Utah League of Cities and Towns has been down to teach Mayor Syrett and the rest of the town council proper meeting protocol. State budget officials are teaching them about money matters.
More than 50 residents attended a recent "Dream Meeting" where everyone present could write their own wish lists for the town. Top on the list, according to Seiler, were the basic services most communities take for granted. Residents want good public safety, sidewalks, street addresses and better roads."This was just Ruby's dream," Syrett said. "And we followed through."
They tried for years antagonism surrounded efforts to make Bryce Canyon City from the beginning.
Garfield County commissioners understandably didn't want to lose the $250,000 to $300,000 from their general fund contributed by taxes on sales at Ruby's Inn. The huge hotel's contributions made up 10 percent of the rural county's budget.
The Ruby's Inn incorporation request was rejected by county commissioners repeatedly, but last winter, lawmakers approved HB466. It looked "innocuous" to county officials at first, who said the bill only had the intention of expediting the process of incorporating a town. It passed without a single dissenting vote.
But at a legislative committee meeting in June 2007, just before a special session of the Utah Legislature, Garfield County commissioners told lawmakers about Ruby's intention to incorporate and said that action would be "disastrous" for their county residents.
The committee said it would return to the issue at a future date, but by then the damage to Garfield County might already be done.
Gardner said legislative leadership was backing the bill, and he wonders why.
"For what benefit? What is the long-term benefit for the state having done that?" he asks. "I don't see any. The county was standing in the way for a good reason."
In years past, the county commissioners could have denied the petition for incorporation if they considered it to be infeasible.
However, the change to state law now requires counties to grant approval for incorporations of towns between 100 and 1,000 residents.
The law was changed to allow residents in unincorporated areas who are frustrated with their county services to take matters into their own hands, said Lincoln Shurtz of the League of Cities and Towns. In an area that meets the standards for population and resident support, 50 percent of the residents and landowners have to support the petition to force the incorporation.
Those opposed to the "sweetheart deal" believe the Legislature probably will revise the new law allowing incorporations like that of Bryce Canyon City, but these same officials predict "Rubytown" will be spared by a grandfather clause."I don't think it's good policy ... and I don't think that's what the Legislature intended," Gardner said.
A moral question?
The rest of Garfield County's residents are finding out how much they are paying for this. The county has announced that a tax increase needed to refill county coffers will be $50 to $70 a household. Taxes on businesses and residences used as second homes will double.
"So the retired couple in Panguitch is going to pay more so the guy from New York can see Bryce Canyon," said Gardner.
The tourist is an obvious beneficiary, Gardner said. And the other beneficiary, he said, is Syrett, the owner of Ruby's Inn. "Clearly, their bottom line is going to go up," Gardner said.
Indeed, officials who gathered recently beneath the timbered beams of the hotel lodge seemed almost giddy.
"We're excited to be a town because we want streets up to our homes," said David Tebbs, Syrett's son-in-law, who is also a new town council member and in charge of the restaurant at Ruby's Inn.
"I don't think it's fair. It's not equitable," Gardner said. Ruby's, he said, has ways to collect money. "They have a whole menu of fees they charge people who come there."
Instead, Bryce Canyon City will take money from the county and still use the county's services like its dump.32 comments on this story
"Are they going to be paying their fair share?" Gardner asks. "The county is going to have to figure that out."
"We'll survive," said Dodds. "I hope they do."
He hopes Ruby's Inn survives? Syrett and Seiler won't say how much the business takes in, but at the rate they are growing it would seem the company is taking in money hand-over-fist.
"I just think it's going to have a negative effect for them," Dodds said. "It's nothing to do with the business, but I think this is morally wrong."Ruby's has been a great support to the community in other ways, Dodds said. The hotel lends equipment and its people volunteer. "It's not an issue with the family, but it's just not right to put this tax burden on the rest of the county and everyone who lives here. Morally, it's not right."