Mt. Pleasant not broken, has been well run for 25 years, leaders say
By Robert Stevens
MT. PLEASANT—Far from being a disorganized or dysfunctional city, Mt. Pleasant has distinguished itself over the past 25 years as a rural town able to both attract economic development and maintain its lifestyle, according to community leaders and federal officials.
The progressive efforts, directed by three mayors over six mayoral terms, have set the city up for continued economic success, according to several key individuals interviewed by the Messenger.
One of the officials is Monte Bona, who was a Mt. Pleasant city councilman for 20 years and currently serves as the executive director of both the Mt. Pleasant City Community Development and Renewal Agency (CDRA), and the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area (MPNHA).
He says the city has distinguished itself for being able to run programs, develop facilities, remain financially solvent, all while maintaining its historic character.
“During the past two decades, Mt. Pleasant has served as an example of significant community and economic development in a small rural town that strives to maintain its rural lifestyle,” Bona says. “Numerous awards have been received in recognition of the city’s success.” (See accompanying table of recognitions.)
Bona, who worked extensively with the city councils and the mayoral administrations of Chesley Christensen, Sandra Bigler and Dave Blackham says the fundamentals of public administration have been strong under all three mayors.
One of those fundamentals is finance. There was a time when the city finances weren’t great, says Dave Oxman, Mt. Pleasant’s director of finances. But that time is long past.
“The balances and budgets in every department continue to climb year after year,” Oxman says. “Previous mayoral administrations put in place a strong template for the way we handle finances, and the city stuck to it as a team.” Now, every year, even in the face of demands such as $300,000 to match road grants, finances continue to improve, he says.
Before her resignation, Bigler released a budget message. She said the tentative budget for FY 2019 showed a $111,000 deficit. But through a series of money-saving adjustments and a transfer of 13.5 percent of Power Department revenues to the general fund, the deficit was erased and the budget for FY 2019 was balanced.
In her message, Bigler emphasized the importance of obtaining grants and other external funding to address needs such as water infrastructure, roads and community facilities.
“Millions of dollars in funds have been secured in the past,” the former mayor wrote. “Economic and community development will require a dedicated effort to assure that money is raised to move our city forward.”
Bigler, who had served a previous term before her most recent term as mayor, played a big part in helping the city move forward through pursuit of grants, Bona said. This followed a pattern set by her predecessors, Christensen and Blackham.
Bona says Bigler has been an instrumental member of the team who helped the MPNHA achieve phenomenal success. (MPNHA is a federally-backed nonprofit that preserves and promotes the Mormon pioneer heritage in Sanpete, Sevier, Piute, Wayne, Garfield and Kane counties.)
With Mt. Pleasant as the “chair community” of the MPNHA, program leaders and the U.S. National Parks Service have leveraged federal dollars to support more
than $44 million in tourism and economic development projects in the six counties.
“The partnership between the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area and Mt. Pleasant City demonstrates the power of historic preservation projects that revitalize and bring new life to beloved historic landmarks,” Alexandra Hernandez, regional heritage area coordinator for the National Park Service, said.
“It also highlights the heritage area’s strong commitment to economic development efforts that preserve our nation’s significant Mormon pioneer settlement history. The Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area success can be attributed, in part, to the enduring legacy of community partnerships like these.”
The model the MPNHA uses to fund projects has been replicated by city entities, including the CDRA and the Local Building Authority, both run by city leadership. Through partnerships with various entities, the local operations have raised millions to the benefit of the community.
One example was announced Tuesday at a city council meeting. Mt. Pleasant has been awarded a $15 million federal grant, possibly the largest single grant ever given to a government unit in Sanpete County, to update its secondary irrigation system.
The grant includes funding for a reservoir that could store 50-85 days worth of city water. The reservoir could help with flood protection, because excess water could run into it. Most important, if there is a wildfire, aircraft from the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies could drop their buckets into the reservoir to get water to fight the fire.
The city worked with JUB Engineering of Orem to identify funding sources and apply for the grant. “From the [former] mayor, from Monte, from the [former] public works director, the city council—they’ve all worked together to help us be successful with this,” Cindy Gooch, funding specialist for JUB said. “You really have to have the full backing of the whole city leadership to meet these kinds of goals.”
Another project, just getting off the ground, is a bicycle and walking trail from Mt. Pleasant to Spring City. Councilman Justin Atkinson, who works for Sunrise Engineering, proposed the idea. Then he helped the city get a $150,000 matching grant from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The grant program is highly competitive, yet Mt. Pleasant received one of the awards.
Using the state money, another $200,000 Atkinson raised from a Federal Highway Administration grant, some funds from the MPHNA and some money from the city itself, Mt. Pleasant is sponsoring the Mt. Pleasant Trail Park Project, the first project of its type and scope in the county.
“I ran for council because I wanted to help make a difference with things like this,” Atkinson said. “Mt. Pleasant has had a great relationship with Sunrise Engineering going back to the ‘80s when they were working on hydroelectric together, long before I was ever there.”
A another example of Mt. Pleasant City partnering with other entities is the ConToy Arena and Cleone Peterson Eccles Equestrian Center, which has been a runaway success, said center manager Jack Widdison.
He has seen the arena grow into a facility where hundreds of high-dollar horses and their owners come to compete in various events put on by the arena’s strategic partner, Skyline Eventing. With the equestrian events come equestrians with money to spend at local businesses.
Another partner in the arena is Wasatch Academy, which uses it for its equestrian program.
“One single person in the city government could have stopped the arena before it even began, or could have delayed it, but Mayor Blackham was very supportive, and so was the rest of the city (staff),” Widdison said. “They worked as a team.”
He said the city has never questioned his management of the arena, which has helped him achieve and surpass the original goals set for the equine center.
By all appearances, these success stories are the norm, not the exception, in Mt. Pleasant. Bona notes that the aquatic center took two decades to come to fruition, but it, too, was accomplished through strategic partnerships, active fundraising and city leaders pursuing grant sources.
Professor Joel Weeks oversaw the partnership between Mt. Pleasant City and BYU to save money on the aquatic center by using a team of students to create a master plan for the facility.
“For four consecutive semesters we had 4-6 students working with Monte and city staff on this project,” Weeks said. “They put together a number of public meetings and helped promote the campaign to get voters to buy in to the proposed funding mechanism.
“Monte and city staff were great to work with. They listened and they worked hard and smart, and they literally empowered our students to play an important role. The success of the project is a tribute to a successful partnership and great community leadership.”
All this success reflects not only an established tradition in Mt. Pleasant but a sustainable trajectory for the city, Bona said.
“It has been my pleasure to work with three mayors and councils,” Bona said. “When I was sworn in as a council member in 1996, Chesley Christensen approached me about the possibility of not replacing Bill Way when he resigned as city coordinator.
“Chesley and I agreed that I would focus on community and economic development and he, in his capacity as the chief executive officer, would supervise city employees as city coordinators had done in the past.
“In addition, I would direct the Redevelopment Agency and raise money for projects. This model was followed by Sandra Bigler when she succeeded Chesley and continued when Dave Blackham was elected. All three mayors worked with the city council in sharing administrative goals and objectives.”