A mayor is dreaming of gold-plated sidewalks, but environmentalists are seeing red over a proposed big-screen theater complex nestled against the towering gateway to Zion National Park.
California-based World Odyssey Inc. wants to put a 300-seat, giant-screen theater, an 80-room hotel and a 275-space parking lot on 11 private acres at the mouth of the park and next to its main campground.The City Council of nearby Springdale has scheduled a public hearing on the matter Thursday.
The $15 million proposal has brought a barrage of complaints from environmental activists, resistance from the National Park Service and a promise of scrutiny by members of the House Interior Committee.
"What we have tried to say to them is that people are turned off by tacking developments next to national parks," said Terri Martin, regional representative of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "Our concern is not with the idea, it's with the location."
The theater would run a pay-for-view film titled "Treasures," a chronicle of the area's natural splendors directed by Utah native Kieth Merrill, World Odyssey's production manager. His 1974 film, "The Great American Cowboy," won an Academy Award.
"We personally are being mischaracterized," Merrill said. "Anyone who has seen my films would have a hard time attacking me as a person who doesn't enjoy God's green Earth."
World Odyssey has constructed similar projects at the Grand Canyon and the Alamo, but Merrill said the company has never faced such opposition.
"As you know, it's the minorities and the special interest groups that rule the world," he said. "I've never been a part of this. It's just amazing to me."
Officials of the adjacent town of Springdale, population 275, see the project as a potential economic windfall that is nobody's business but their own.
"If this goes through, because of the tax rolls and within 20 years we can have gold-plated sidewalks," said Mayor Robert Ralston, who has taken to taping his telephone calls to avoid being misquoted.
He said city officials have received more than 100 letters from opponents of the project, which would double Springdale's tax base. The town was left deep in debt when plans for a golf course were scuttled.
"This will bring the city to the eyes of the public, and there will be worldwide attention to our little community," Ralston said. "That means people will be coming here and spending their money, and that's what it's all about."
Trouble is, the city's planning and zoning laws don't cover theater construction.
Opposition centers on the proj-ect's proximity to a park that drew more than 2.3 million visitors in 1990. Park Superintendent Harold L. Grafe said the National Park Service does not oppose the idea of the complex, just the location.
Grafe would like to see the theater combined with a "transportation hub" in the center of Springdale where visitors could park, watch the movie and then ride a shuttle through the frequently congested park.
Visitors must drive on a narrow, two-lane road that winds seven miles through the sandstone splendors of Zion Canyon before dead-ending at the sheer red cliffs of the Temple of Sinawava.
Merrill said that idea would work just fine at World Odyssey's preferred location. If 20,000 people visit the park on a given day and 25 percent of them stop at the complex before going in, there would be only 15,000 in the park at a given time, he said.
"The quality of the project becomes part of the park experience," he said.
National Parks and Conservation Association's Martin scoffs at Merrill's claim.
"World Odyssey says this will enhance people's visit to the park," she said. "I wonder if their visit would be enhanced more to spend 30 minutes watching this movie or watching a bird build a nest."
Merrill says Martin and others are "Johnny-come-latelys" to the project he says has been redesigned 20 times over two years. Major concessions include elimination of overhead lighting, fewer hotel rooms and natural wood and rock on the buildings, he said.
Grafe gives Merrill high marks for cooperation.
"This outfit is trying to do things in an environmentally sensitive way, and if they were stopped, it's still private property," he said. "There could be something really gaudy put there. There could be a carnival in there."