Springdale is a town once so divided that a Washington County deputy sheriff had to attend town meetings to keep the peace. It is a place where unprecedented vehemence and acrimony spewed about the Zion Canyon Cinemax theater, which brought its six-story screen, its thunderous stereo system and spectacular camera work to the breathtakingly beautiful entrance of Zion National Park.
It is a place where astonishing beauty has at times belied a vicious conflict between city officials that wormed its way through a district court, town councils and Springdale homes.
It is a place where the arty, philosophical meanderings of the current mayor have successfully wedded with Springdale’s sturdy Mormon heritage and tradition.
And where a town born out of a rough-hewn farming and ranching tradition stands out as the only southern Utah town to support a plan to protect 5.7 million acres as wilderness.
Springdale is a community of contrasts; and it would take a great philosophy, a great faith and a great will to blend these contrasts.
Springdale Mayor Phillip Kent Bimstein apparently has this will. And music–as it has been through the years in this community of 350–is at the heart of his philosophy.
“Opposing voices and sounds can find harmony,” Bimstein says.
That simple philosophy, it seems, has a holistic healing power–it’s also helping to make Springdale one of the most sought after tourist destinations.
Before Bimstein, “politically, Springdale was a mess,” said Scott Hirschi, director of the Washington County Economic Development Council. But in 4 1/2 years as mayor, he has changed that.
“He has been able to work very well with all sides,” Hirschi said. “The controversies have mostly disappeared.”
Bimstein won’t take the credit. It was a combination of factors: a community council, some new staff and the citizens willingness to click with something positive. “It’s not like I go around preaching these philosophies every day. I think it’s more about the behavior and the actions that result from these philosophies.
“It’s really the community. The residents are responsible for the turnaround.”
Soothing the savage beast
Chicago-born Bimstein was backpacking through southern Utah when he first happened on Springdale, nestled beneath sandstone cliffs at the mouth of Zion Canyon.
He dreamed about the place. He dreamed of making Springdale his home, and several years ago, he returned to live. As a successful composer, he brought with him his music and his nurturing, funky view of community dynamics.
Today he makes a good living writing music, and much of what he writes now is inspired by the southern Utah landscape. His compositions are performed in San Francisco, Las Vegas and other places in the West.
But mostly he sticks close to home, carefully considering the opinions and viewpoints of a diverse community. He was married when he moved to town, but after a friendly divorce, he says the townspeople are his only family.
It kept the townspeople together in the early 1900s, when times were tough and people learned if they picked up their banjos and guitars and collected in song on the neighbor’s porch, things seemed a lot easier. Later there was the Geffin Family Band and the Marshall Band.
It’s what 87-year-old Elva Twitchell remembers most about growing up around Springdale. Everyone played an instrument. Some people made their own. Everyone joined in. Nobody had formal lessons. They just learned.
With Bimstein’s help, music has helped to heal a community.
Once ravaged by small-town crisis, controversy and political strife, Springdale is now a robust enclave of artists and environmentalists, old-timers and new-timers, hikers, bikers and pioneer stock.
When Bimstein moved to town, he wrote a “cow concerto” inspired by the community, its residents and the area. One was about Garland Hirschi, a local cattleman. “I got to know the community through music and musical projects. I wrote several pieces and got to know the town.”
Maybe it was flattery that helped him win over the community. Maybe it was his groovy, all-accepting philosophy that makes people believe they are the flutes and strings and percussion in an orchestra.
“Music-making has always been a vital part of this community,” Bimstein said. “This is the way people passed on stories about each other. It brought us together. That tradition is old.”
But with merrymaking, music has been used to solve problems. And there have been a few.
Not always great harmony
The troubled times aren’t far behind, but residents are trying to forget what nearly destroyed the community in the early 1990s. . . it was an embarrassment, what happened with former Mayor Robert Ralston.
After a lengthy dispute between Ralston and the Town Council, Ralston said the city’s staff was incompetent and sued.
A 5th District judge eventually called the claims groundless and dismissed the case. But the ruling came two years after Ralston accused seven city workers–including the water superintendent, the town water commissioner, council members, the town attorney and recorder –of incompetence.
The state Attorney General’s Office investigated claims ranging from malfeasance in office to misuse of public funds.
All were determined to be unfounded or mistakes committed without malice.
It was what town clerk Sue Fraley described as “a lot of torture,” and the ordeal damaged the town’s reputation and pride. Residents lost trust in the people entrusted with the town’s government.
The community lost its self-esteem.
That’s was about the time Bimstein moved to town. He didn’t dive into politics right away but got involved in the arts council and other arts projects.
Bimstein ended up with a couple of other sticky issues on his lap. The big theater issue for one, decided before his term in office, and two lawsuits hanging over from the previous administration.
Again, music and the community’s unique arty flavor intervened.
“We were very polarized–people were at each other’s throats about various issues,” Bimstein said. The local arts council offered a series of lectures that really were round-table discussions. The theme: “Embracing opposites: in search of the public good.”
Utah author Terry Tempest Williams came to talk; so did Daniel Kemmis, the mayor of Missoula, Mont.
It was more like a humanities program, and it worked.
Soon after, Bimstein, who says he simply fell in love with the color of the red rock and canyons, was asked to run for mayor.
He won, and brought his philosophy along.
“Songdog” says the license plate on one of Bimstein’s vehicles. It is the English language translation of the Navajo word for “coyote.” In Navajo legend, the “songdog” sings the world into existence.
“Personally, we all sing our own world into existence. We can choose to see good or bad in whatever we create, and we can create the future of the town by way we conduct ourselves.”
And for this Chicago-born mayor: a former member of the new wave band Phil ‘n the Blanks, an award-winning composer and graduate of the Chicago Conservatory of Music, there is a melody to be found in the effort.
Opposing voices and sounds can find a harmony, he says.
Dissonance and harmony. As in music, there is a place for both in consensus-building.
He likens various opinions to a musical counterpoint.
Different opinions are like different pieces in an orchestra. “They can all blend together. Sometimes someone takes the solo role and sometimes people are acting in a support position.”
But some Springdalians see things more simply. The woman working at the counter at Canyon Offerings on Main Street isn’t talking esoterics or amorphous community philosophy. She’s talking survival.
No, she won’t give her name. And no, she doesn’t think it’s a great idea to do the story: “Springdale, A Wonderful Place.”
Instead, she hopes it’s a story about “how scary it is to live here when you invest your life savings in a place and then it’s ruined by yuppies or whoever moves in.”
Her wish? “That you Wasatch Front people would stay up there and we will stay down here. The best thing we can do for Springdale is to keep our mouths shut.”
All opinions have value, says Mayor Bimstein. All voices are part of the community’s song. “I can see a way in which everyone has a part to play.”
That’s the way it’s always been here.
Elva Twitchell remembers the trees.
She grew up inside what is now Zion National Park. There were cedars and pinyon pines and juniper trees and she and other children explored every canyon and crevice. They looked for bird nests, but children knew never to touch a bird’s egg.
Her father, William Louis Crawford, had a farm there where he grew cherries, apples, nectarines, pecans and walnuts. Her father was known throughout the county for the size and sweetness of his watermelons.
Later, when the federal government bought her father’s farm to make the park, the family moved to town.
She’s moved away a couple of times through the past nine decades, but always came home.
She doesn’t like all the changes. The Cinemax theater, for instance. It’s too big and too loud. She can’t look when the camera takes her up and over the sides of cliffs in the film about Zion National Park, “Treasure of the Gods.”
“I’m not happy that it’s all happened this way, but I’ve always known we have to progress,” she said. “A lot of these things are good for us.”
Springdale’s theme is to retain respect for the landscape on which Springdale exists.
And the community does this by preserving green space, by creating zoning ordinances that don’t allow the place to get overbuilt, by creating sign ordinances that only allow messages to be posted out of materials that blend in with the environment.
And slowly, surely, with consensus, Springdale has sailed out of debt and into financial fitness on this feel-good philosophy.
- Springdale merchants recorded 33 percent more retail sales in 1997 than during the same period in 1996. In contrast, St. George improved by only 1.4 percent during that time.
- Similarly, Springdale direct retail sales, service and business purchases increased nearly 16 percent over the previous year. In contrast, St. George merchants claimed 6.5 percent more sales during this time period.
- Services grew by 10.5 percent in 1997, according to the Utah State Tax Commission.
Bimstein feels his philosophy is helping to shape Springdale.
He introduced himself to his now hometown community through music. He wrote songs about the people, about the land. Still does.
Terry Tempest Williams will be featured in “Refuge Quartet.” The author’s words, rhythms and vocal tonalities will be blended with music and bird sounds.
“Dark wind rising” is about a Paiute Indian tribe in Arizona that rejects a toxic waste incinerator project.
Sounds made by frogs, crickets and a solo oboe are mixed in the composition “Half moon at Checkerboard Mesa,” a favorite Zion site.
He got a grant from a New York organization to write music that celebrates the Utah landscape, and he wrote “Grand Staircase,” in honor of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
Is Bimstein too new age? Too over the top? The majority of townspeople must not think so. He was re-elected last November.
“He keeps things interesting,” said Twitchell, who loves the events Bimstein has brought to town. “Some of the mayors we’ve had before have really gotten us into trouble. (Bimstein) got us out of debt.”
“We’ve had some ups and downs, but it’s always been a nice place to live.”