April 17, 2017 Read More →

Page, Arizona, Seeks to End Its Economic Reliance on Struggling Navajo Generating Station

Arizona Daily Sun:

This city that has staked its success on both the power plant’s operations and outdoor tourism is confronting a potential turning point.

Two months ago, Page learned that four of the Navajo Generating Station’s owners will abandon their stake in the power plant at the end of 2019 because low natural gas prices have made burning coal a money-losing venture.

The fifth owner, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, has agreed to work with the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Peabody Coal, and others with an economic stake in the power plant on plans to keep the facility operating.

Among those who live in Page and the surrounding area, the potential closure of the power plant has revealed divergent visions of the community’s future — one that sees a wealth of potential for the city to fully embrace the boon of tourism and another that sees the power plant as a valuable asset that is far from the end of its useful life.

Clint Spahn has lived in Page his entire life. He was in diapers the first time he floated Lake Powell on his grandparents’ houseboat and he first ran Grand Canyon at age 8. Now, the 29-year-old is the co-owner of Hidden Canyon Kayaks, where he leads kayak tours through the myriad of slot canyons around the lake. Spahn said he doesn’t see any benefit to his business from the power plant continuing to operate — far from it.

“It’s a 750-foot eyesore,” he said. “It’s about time we focused on the 3.5 million people coming through Page.”

He doesn’t buy predictions that the plant’s closure would be a major blow to the city.

“People are scared the whole community will drown,” he said. “It’s not true, though. We’re a boom town right now. We’re Moab (Utah) but better and no one knows it yet.”

It’s impossible to deny that tourism is surging in Page.

Last year, visitation to nearby Glen Canyon National Recreation Area jumped 30 percent over the year before, to a total of 3.3 million people. Two new hotels opened their doors last year and four more are under construction, while the city’s sales tax collections over the past 12 months are up 10 percent over the same period last year. In February alone, the most recent month of data, collections were up 17 percent —a big deal considering Page doesn’t have a municipal property tax.

Owners of restaurants and tour companies say there’s hardly a winter off-season anymore and they have seen their business increase year-over-year as well.

Many, including Spahn, say a closure of Navajo Generating Station would provide the impetus the city needs to get serious about making itself more attractive to visitors.

“Page is ready for a change and I think that we are slated to become a really beautiful tourist destination,” Thompson said. “We really have the ability here to capitalize on how beautiful the area is, and the only black eye on this beauty for a long, long time has been that power plant.”

In Dennis Warner’s words, Page has long existed in the shadows of the power plant and still hangs onto its identity as a service community to Glen Canyon Dam.

“We need to rewrite the next chapter,” said Warner, a member of the Page City Council who moved to the area in 1958 because his father had a concession to provide the rubber tires for equipment used in constructing Glen Canyon Dam.

At least one of his fellow councilmembers agreed.

“It’s a new city and it’s a city that is 30 years overdue for a makeover,” said Korey Seyler, a member of Page’s city council who is also general manager at Colorado River Discovery.

Page Mayor Bill Diak said he also wants to see the city hire a tourism director, instead of leaving the task of promoting the city and interacting with visitors to the Chamber of Commerce and the mostly volunteer-run Powell Museum.

The focus on the city’s appearance is a distinct shift from past city councils that were mired in figuring out how to pay off millions in bond debt dating back to the 1990s, Warner said. The current council reduced the size of city government and restructured the repayment plan, allowing it to take on other priorities, he said.

At the same time, nearby Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is making its own improvements to help expand capacity and improve access for visitors. After seeing a surge in people looking for more land-based activities, the recreation area is analyzing options for opening more areas to off-road vehicles and looking to create more trails that are accessible from the Page area, spokesperson Brandon Honig said. The Park Service also is working with the city of Page on a plan to expand parking and put in bathrooms, interpretive signage and trail improvements at the Horseshoe Bend Overlook, an always-crowded viewpoint just a few miles outside of town.

While efforts are ongoing to explore a variety of economic development strategies for the Page area, Seyler said he’d like to see the city develop its technology industry.

“It’s no longer Silicon Valley anymore. It could be anywhere with an internet connection,” he said.

At the same time, Warner said the city has aspired to diversify its economy for the last 50 years, and the reality is, its geographic isolation doesn’t make it suited for many industries.

“I think that as a community we have to work on what our strengths are now, not what we wish they were,” he said.

With coal plant’s shaky future, many in Page look toward tourism

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