"Don't call it a dream. It's not a dream."
Shela Wilson is adamant: Call the proposed Anasazi Valley Cultural Center anything you want, except don't call it a dream. You don't sink more than a million dollars of your own money into a dream.She prefers instead to call it a vision. "It's real. It's happening," she said.
In fact, it is. Work on the project's infrastructure - roads, site development, rest rooms, utilities, etc. - has already begun. And work on a theater, museum and cultural center is expected to begin in the months ahead. A theater production is scheduled to open there Sept. 6-10.
Still, with an estimated $50 million price tag, there are plenty of folks in southern Utah willing to say the non-profit development will never happen. But Wilson has a lot of supporters, including a growing contingent of St. George-area business owners, who believe the Anasazi Valley Cultural Center could be the key ingredient in making Utah's Dixie a world-class tourist attraction.
Critics of St. George's sluggish economy point to the fact that millions of people a year pass through, but few spend more than a few minutes in the area. Most are on their way to somewhere else.
"This could be the one thing we need to pull people off the freeway and keep them in the area another day or two," Wilson said, adding that most people who pass by are unaware of the many attractions it has to offer.
Wilson and her supporters are not talking small change. If it works, it could mean millions of visitors a year pumping tens of millions of dollars into the economy of southeastern Utah. And that means new jobs and new business opportunities, Wilson said.
But it's more than business.
"Aside from the potential economic benefits to the communities near the valley, this project is for me a religious commitment that transcends personal church affiliation, reaching out to recognize the brotherhood of all men," she said.
"I want to reveal the Indians to the public as the exciting, intelligent people they are. They are artistic people, they are wonderfully gifted people with something vital and important to present to the world. Their past and present is a vital part of America. I want to see it preserved and presented well."
Even Wilson admits her project, located on 80 scenic acres along the Santa Clara River about eight miles west of St. George, is rather grandiose. In addition to privately owned and operated food and hotel accommodations, plans call for a large Indian cultural center, a first-class museum, a large outdoor theater and a series of on-site ancient Indian ruins, that would be stabilized and fortified to handle large numbers of visitors.
If all goes as planned, Anasazi Valley is to become an international attraction on the scale of the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii.
And that is more than just a casual comparison. Wilson's late husband, Joseph E. Wilson, was in charge of building the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, and Shela Wilson served as photographer and consultant on many aspects of that development.
"This is a three-fold project," she explained. First it's a learning center where people can share their cultural heritage. And it's an economic venture to bring employment opportunities and tourism. And it's a museum, a "rare window into the past."
"My first intent was to build a theater and an Indian cultural center, and surround them with a big beautiful park for people to relax in," she said.
But a few months after she purchased the property, she found the remains of "one of the finest archaeological digs anywhere in the state of Utah." Brigham Young University archaeologists are now excavating the site.
Negotiations are under way with the Bureau of Land Management to acquire additional ruins next to Anasazi Valley and bring them under the protection of the private, non-profit development, as well as interpret them for the public.
The ruins were occupied by a large Anasazi community more than a thousand years ago before being abandoned about 1300 A.D. They left behind dozens of dwellings and rock art panels that Wilson said will play an integral role in the general theme of Anasazi Valley.
Wilson is not a business novice. A professional artist and photographer, she has also operated a number of businesses, both large and small. She is also president and founder of the non-profit Sunhawk Productions, a company that puts on the open-air musical drama, "The American Messiah."
The production, which has drawn good crowds the last few years, will find a permanent home at the new cultural center as well. The musical, based on the life Jesus Christ in both Palestine and the Western Hemisphere, is the only aspect of the development with religious overtones.
The Indian ruins will have strictly a scientific interpretation, the cultural center will be operated by the Indian cultures involved and private businesses will lease space on site for food and lodging accommodations.
She compared it to a shopping mall where one facility has many different operations. " `The American Messiah' is one tenant, Pizza Hut is another," she said. "And there are others."
Wilson wants to dispel rumors the pro-ject is going to be a large amusement park or a religious center for proselyting. "It's just not true," she said. "It never was and never will be."
The goal is to provide a free enterprise opportunity for Indians and other peoples. "I want a place where they can sell their artwork and crafts, and for others to come and learn from them," she said.