Monday, August 23, 2010

Pioneer Crossing

As the sun broke over the American Fork canyon this morning, I joined about a hundred other government officials, engineers, and newspaper reporters to witness the opening of the Pioneer Crossing, a historic occasion and a red letter day.

Aptly named for Utah's pioneer forebears, the new American Fork-Saratoga Springs connector enables today's commuters to travel in just six minutes the six miles from Redwood Road in Saratoga Springs to I-15 in American Fork. This same distance, a UDOT official reminded us this morning, would have been a half-day trip for the pioneers, and also a half-day trip for the luckless commuters of Lehi's Main Street.

With a total project cost of $260 million, the road was hailed as a significant transportation investment. Officials who spoke to us this morning explained the significance of the taxpayers' investment in various ways:

Ken Sumsion, Utah State Representative for District 56, which includes Lehi, Saratoga Springs, and parts of American Fork, explained that transportation is an economic engine, making this an important and timely investment in his district. His district, with its population of 90,000, is the largest legislative district in the state; it is projected to grow to 300,000 by the year 2030; and even in the recession it has generated some 200 building permits per year. Clearly, funding this transportation corridor at this time was a far-sighted move on the part of the state and county legislatures.

Congressman Jim Matheson, of Utah's 2nd Congressional District, similarly explained the importance of investment in transportation, saying that it creates jobs in the short term and, in the long term, creates a tangible asset of infrastructure.

From Governor Gary Herbert, we learned that the state legislature has increased transportation funding by 500 percent since 2005, when the state invested a mere $50 million per year. Weighed against $260 million for just six miles at Pioneer Crossing, that earlier figure seems woefully inadequate for a state that grows at twice the national rate. He was proud to remind us that Utah, in large part because of these investments, was recently rated the top state for business, both in terms of its quality of life and the health of its business climate.

Governor Herbert also praised UDOT for its leadership and innovation, pointing out that the bridge farm -- the process of constructing bridges off-site and rolling them into place overnight -- was a UDOT innovation, pioneered right here in American Fork, and now being copied in other states. Techniques such as this, he said, are stretching the taxpayers' dollars as far as possible.

The new diverging diamond interchange at Main Street is itself a significant innovation, only the second of its kind in the United States, and it is now open.

Truly, this is a red letter day.

For all the skinny on the Pioneer Crossing, including a virtual "test-drive" of the bewildering diamond, please visit the UDOT project page here.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Buy Local

Now for a commercial message from all the wonderful folks here in American Fork City.

Please, buy local!

There are many good reasons to buy locally. Dollars spent locally support endeavors run by our own friends and neighbors and are more likely to stay in the community. Studies have shown that 96 percent of dollars spent at national retailers go back to the corporate headquarters, while 75 percent of dollars spent at local retailers stay local.

From a strictly American Fork point of view, however, the reason to buy local is that the sales tax receipts stay here in the City, providing core services such as public safety, parks, library books, and road maintenance.

Of course, there are also good reasons to take our money elsewhere, especially when shopping for the typical middle-class, cash-strapped household. For one thing, we live in a free market economy, and we want our money to support the most competitive, most efficient, and therefore cheapest retailers. For another, some things are just hard to find in American Fork, things such as books, steak houses, and furniture.

Appreciating this, the late City Council member Jimmie Cates said it best: "First, find the best deals, then choose the one that's local."

(I miss Jimmie Cates!)

Living as I do with constant City budget anxiety -- knowing that sales tax revenues are dropping to the point where we will soon have to raise property taxes in order to provide core services -- I set myself a goal this summer to buy in American Fork wherever humanly possible.

This was a significant commitment for me to make at this time, as I have been moving my family into a new home and spending down savings accumulated over many years. I knew this would be a challenge because American Fork's biggest retail gap is in home furnishings. But I also knew this would be my greatest opportunity to make a personal impact on the budget that keeps me awake nights.

As I kept this commitment, I made a few findings which I now share with you.

For groceries, I still went out of town to Maceys and Smiths for door-busters and loss leaders, but I also found many competitive deals at Fresh Market and Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart, I learned, will price-match many of those out-of-town deals. For everything I had to buy at regular price, I chose Wal-Mart or Fresh Market.

For sundry home repair and maintenance, I always went first to Home Depot, then to Wal-Mart, only going to Lowe's when I struck out in American Fork. I really like Lowe's, actually, but Lowe's is in Lehi. Let Lehi support Lowe's!

I bought gas in American Fork even though the federal government distributes B and C road funds by population rather than point of sale. I have seen too many gas stations go out of business here in town, and I reasoned that if I could do my part to keep them open, revenues from convenience purchases made at those establishments would continue to flow into American Fork coffers. (Heaven forbid I myself should buy at convenience prices! But enough other people do that it makes a difference.)

I made and continue to make my clothing purchases at yard sales and at the American Fork DI. This does absolutely nothing for American Fork sales tax receipts, but it does free up more of my other dollars to be spent in American Fork.

Home furnishings -- linens, kitchen items, and home decoration -- these things are easy to find in American Fork. Kohl's, Roberts, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Wal-Mart, Target, Big Lots, and, of course, DI -- all compete well with quality merchandise in the latest styles at good prices.

Now, furniture was the big surprise. I worked hardest to locate these purchases in AF because they were my big ticket items. This posed a real challenge because American Fork has no national furniture chains and no budget furniture retailers such as IKEA or the RC Willey clearance outlet. Nevertheless, I did surprisingly well. I ordered my appliances through Home Depot. I found lovely, affordable furniture pieces and catalogs at the Star Mill, at Blackhurst Carpet and Furniture on 1100 East, at Big Lots, and at my two new favorite stores, Finders Keepers and Mona Lisa's Consignments on Main Street.

Why am I sharing this with you? At this point I must say that this blog does not represent the official viewpoint of American Fork City and is not intended as a commercial endorsement of one retailer over another. In fact, if there are local retailers I have slighted or omitted, please let them comment and I will gladly post.

My hope today is simply this: I want you, dear reader, to think whether there are more ways you can shop locally and support the City's sales tax base. The City has cut and deferred for as many years as it possibly can, and if sales tax revenues do not pick up next year, there will be no choice but to raise property taxes.

After some three months of effort, I sat down with the City budget officer and looked up the latest sales tax receipts. To my great disappointment, my effort didn't make the slightest upward blip in the numbers. The lesson? I can't do it alone. Please, buy local, and join me in supporting our local economy.