SALT LAKE CITY — In her first State of the County address on Tuesday, newly elected Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson highlighted a financial and culturally strong county, while also pledging to balance rapid growth with quality of life.
"Southwest valley residents — I have heard you," Wilson said, referring to residents in communities including Herriman, Riverton and South Jordan who have been frustrated with high-density development plans they fear will negatively impact their neighborhoods.
Her comments come after some elected officials in those communities pushed a bill in this year's legislative session to allow a split from Salt Lake County, frustrated with how the county has treated west-side communities and whether funding for transportation or other projects has been distributed fairly. The bill ultimately failed.
In an interview after her speech, Wilson said she doesn't believe there are areas of the county that have been "neglected," but she promised to be an "engaged partner."
"We're not the end all be all for the southwest section valley, nor should we be," she said. "We are one partner. And I promise to be a strong partner to that area as well as the other areas of the county."
The real issue, Wilson said, "is the fast growth rate."
"We have to build density. I've said it for years," the mayor said. "Density continues to be a four-letter word when it's not ... And we can do it right."
Wilson's first State of the County speech comes nearly two months after she was sworn in to replace the former mayor and now Rep. Ben McAdams after he was elected to Congress.
Wilson was elected county mayor by the Democratic Party after she previously served on the Salt Lake County Council as the body's first elected woman. Wilson intends to run for election to a full four-year term as county mayor in 2020.
After previously running for U.S. Senate — a bid she lost to Mitt Romney — Wilson said she spent the last two years on the campaign trail knocking on doors and listening to residents, and now she's taking that on-the-ground approach to bringing new focus to issues like rapid growth, air quality and housing.
"We need to assure growth is our friend, not our enemy," Wilson said in her speech at the Salt Lake County Government Center. "As explosive growth threatens quality of life, it is our duty as a regional government to drive regional solutions through planning, resource management and transportation solutions."
While outlining her plans — including creating a new Office of Environmental Services to focus on air quality — Wilson also credited McAdams for leaving the county in a laudable position, enjoying a AAA bond rating and a bill of "excellent" financial health.
Wilson also listed off several "amazing milestones" the county has celebrated recently, including construction of the new Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville, a new aquatic facility coming to Draper in 2020, and the groundbreaking for the new Salt Lake Convention Center Hotel slated for later this year.
But Wilson said she's come to realize the county needs to do a better job educating residents on the role of the county and how the government works.
"It's funny, as I travel to our various county communities, townships and cities, I've heard this: 'Hello, Mayor Wilson. I thought my mayor was (South Jordan Mayor) Dawn Ramsey," Wilson said. "(Or), 'What does the county do anyway?' And in my own Salt Lake City neighborhood, 'When will you take care of my broken sidewalk?'"
With 18 cities and five townships in Salt Lake County, "no wonder the confusion," she said.
So, Wilson says she plans to hold town halls over the next few months in five locations throughout the valley. "Listening and engagement are core principles of my time in office," she said.
Wilson said she's encouraging the county's Office of Regional Development to focus on economic growth and incentives that "don't just reward corporations for placing headquarters here, but help economic growth within our various communities and give more opportunities to our residents from the bottom up, rather than the top down."
She pointed to recent controversial projects — including Salt Lake City's inland port and a high-density development in Herriman, Olympia Hills, that after being vetoed by McAdams is back in the planning process.
"Every ZIP code in our county deserves prosperity," she said. "And we need to guarantee that new projects — like the prison site development, Olympia Hills and the inland port — provide a net benefit to our community and address potential negative impacts. That means good planning and addressing environmental, resource and transportation concerns."
Wilson also pledged under her leadership that there will be an "invigorated focus" on housing.
"The next generation is being priced out of our community," she said. "We need to make sure that housing options exist that are affordable to make sure everyone has the housing they need and the neighborhoods they want."6 comments on this story
Salt Lake County Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove, a Republican, applauded Wilson for expressing "bold goals" and for focusing on growth issues. He said Wilson has had a "positive" administration, and he so far doesn't have any concerns with her proposals — but the council will delve into the details during the budget cycle.
Snelgrove said Wilson already has a strong relationship with the council, as a familiar face.
"She's sat in our chairs before, so she can appreciate the lens of which we view things," he said. "I thought it was a good speech and builds upon the progress she's made in the few months she's been in office so far."