ST. GEORGE — In St. George, the new growth area is south.
Testing the waters that finally seem calm after the recession, a behemoth master-planned development has broken ground on one of its first projects.
But the Desert Canyons development, said company president Curt Gordon, is doing things a little differently. Instead of another golf course, the mixed-used development will be anchored by a sports park. The project has largely flown under the public’s radar, say critics, who are few and far between.
Located south of St. George’s airport, the development spans 2,432 acres slated for residential, commercial and industrial use. It is in one of the last swaths of developable land in the St. George area, according to Bob Nicholson, a St. George city planner.
“In St. George, we’re out of land area for these mega developments,” he said. The Desert Canyons development and a comparable area, owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, “will probably be the last two large undeveloped chunks of ground.”
Construction has begun on a wakeboard park, planned to open in June. A dirt bike track opened last fall. Later this year, crews will start building 24 fields for baseball, softball and soccer that Gordon hopes will become a “regional tournament center” with nearby hotels and restaurants in the next five years.
Right now, Gordon said, St. George doesn’t have the park capacity to host large regional tournaments like Las Vegas — but he feels the demand is there, especially with fields consolidated into one place. Marc Mortensen, assistant to the St. George city manager, said there is a definite demand for such a large sports-field complex.
“If you build it, they will come,” he said. “There isn’t enough grass to accommodate demand. League play gets bumped when there’s a large tournament here.”
The current construction is but a sign of things to come: Desert Canyons has a water park, pickleball court complex, go-cart track and flow-rider complex in the works. Gordon said he expects to see demand for housing in the development within next three or four years.
Desert Canyons has the capacity for about 6,300 residential units — from one-acre lots to condos in mixed-use town centers — and a total population of 16,000. It is definitely one of the largest developments in St. George, Nicholson said. Comparably sized developments in the area include the Ledges, Coral Canyon and SunRiver.
Gordon’s company purchased the land in 2004 from Leucadia Financial Corp. His plan was to be able to have the property ready to market when the new airport opened, which he was able to do, despite the slowing effects of the recession.
The land known as the “Southern Block” from I-15 through the area where Desert Canyons is located, right along the Utah/Arizona border, is where most of the growth in St. George will happen in coming decades, Mortensen said. It’s also the area where Washington County residents have indicated they wanted to see future development, said Christi Nuffer, the administrator for Citizens for Dixie’s Future, a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting natural resources and quality of life in Washington County.
“We have not seen a lot of public outcry with (Desert Canyons),” she said. The group opposes the Lake Powell Pipeline — something Mortensen says city officials support — as well as development and planned roads in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve north of the city.
Waid Reynolds, a retiree who moved to St. George from Seattle in 2005, sees the development’s wakeboard park as a waste of precious water and he said he doesn’t feel like it has gotten enough public scrutiny. He said he doesn’t see the point of creating artificial lakes for water sports when we have three large reservoirs in the area.
He also sees a strong connection between the wakeboard park and another hot-button issue: the proposed Lake Powell pipeline.
“This is a desert. ... It’s very dry and we have a water district that’s telling us we’re going to have to build a multi-billion dollar pipeline to Lake Powell to have enough water. Then we find out that millions of gallons of water are going to be used for a wakeboard park,” Reynolds said.
The local government, Reynolds added, doesn’t require any type of water conservation, allows artificial lakes to be built and doesn’t require secondary water systems to be built in new developments.
“In Utah, anything goes as long as they think somebody can make a buck off of it," he said. "I’ve never been in a place like this where they don’t care about the total destruction of the environment as long as somebody is making money.”
Gordon says he is planning his development differently. He said Desert Canyons will have infrastructure for both culinary and secondary water systems and will be a mixed-use residential and commercial development, with housing, shops and restaurants clustered close together in walkable areas near exits off of the Southern Parkway.
For secondary water use, Desert Canyons will use reclaimed water, and it will also draw water from an aquifer through private wells to which the company has 1,200 acre per feet in water rights. Barry Barnum, St. George water services director, said the aquifer Desert Canyons will tap into is a separate hydrologic drainage basin than the aquifer St. George takes water from. Also, it’s not one St. George is interested in for culinary water because it has too much dissolved sediment in it, he added.
Gordon said his company is taking care to use the aquifer water carefully in the development and the wakeboard park, which will have two half-acre wakeboard ponds and a skimboard pond when it opens this year. A 10-acre wakeboard pond that will hold 20 million gallons of water is planned to be built and ready to use next year.
“Our water is a very precious resource, and our plans are to utilize all of the water which flows through our (wakeboard) ponds in a variety of different ways,” he said. “We don’t plan to dispose of any water.”
Water will flow from the 4 million-gallon wakeboard ponds into a shallow skimboarding pond, then to a “bio pond” with aquatic plants, animals and fish. Desert Canyons will draw irrigation water from the bio pond to water the 24 soccer and baseball fields, which Gordon said will require 200,000 gallons of water a day. Evaporation for the two wakeboard ponds is projected to be about 700,000 gallons a month.
The success of the desert development will ultimately tell whether locals, tournament officials and tourists think the sports park and its conservation measures are a good idea — or just another waste of water.
Gordon seems to think his company has found a niche in the market.
“We’re kind of progressing St. George to another level in terms of our sports park,” Gordon said. “It’s an opportunity to do a little bit of a different development than you’ve seen in the past here in St. George.”
Alison Snyder has a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Brigham Young University. She lives in St. George.