A mock-up of a potential Great Salt Lake state park visitors center. One budget proposal would set aside money for a new visitors center, replacing the current triple-wide trailer center. (Utah Division of State Parks)
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SALT LAKE CITY — Just three days after Brigham Young and the first group of pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, Young and a group of others continued west just a little bit more beyond their settlement.
Riding horses, the group crossed the Jordan River, passed around the Oquirrh Mountains and ended up in the Tooele Valley in an exploration of resources. On their way back, they stopped at what’s known today as Black Rock, to swim in the Great Salt Lake.
“And that was the beginning of recreation at the Great Salt Lake,” said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville.
There have been hotels, resorts, steamboats, trains and amusement parks by the southern shore of the lake that have since come and gone over the past 175 years since that initial trip. It became a state park in the late 1970s, with a marina and other attractions. And even as the Great Salt Lake is drying up at an alarming rate, interest in the lake is returning — so much that there’s now a push to address the visitation growth.
While the health of the Great Salt Lake and ways to preserve it is at the center of attention during this year’s legislative session, Nelson is seeking funding to address another issue by the lake. He’s seeking funding for a new visitors center to handle the growing number of people coming to visit the lake.
The building designs submitted to Utah’s legislative Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee last week would cost about $25 million. However, Nelson told KSL.com on Wednesday that it’s possible to scale back some of the features to save costs if the sticker price is an issue.
It’s something he believes would be better served now only because it is new money the state can spend. The proposal, he adds, is the result of big-picture ideas the state requested as a result of one-time federal infrastructure funding heading Utah’s way.
“This is a big idea — a once in a lifetime (idea) that would really bless residents of Utah and thousands of visitors for generations to come. And it really would be a self-sustaining state park,” Nelson told the subcommittee.
There is a visitors center there now, but to consider it a building is a bit crass. It’s literally a triple-wide trailer designed as a visitors center, said Jeff Rasmussen, director at the Utah Division of State Parks. The facility opened in 2014.
“Honestly, it’s embarrassing. We can and should do better,” he said, during the subcommittee hearing. “I believe the Great Salt Lake State Park is really an underutilized facility and it can be so much more, and this visitors center can really take it to that next level.”
Nelson agrees. While the park isn’t in his jurisdiction as a state legislator, he does pass it often during commutes between Grantsville and Salt Lake City.
There aren’t many indications there’s a park in the area and the current visitors center is so small that it doesn’t really attract the thousands of people traveling on I-80 through the area daily. It’s what sparked his interest in a new building there.
“It’s an invisible state park — most people don’t know about it,” he told KSL.com. “They drive right past it.”
Despite that, the Great Salt Lake State Park is experiencing a bit of a renaissance even if the lake itself isn’t. Per Utah Division of State Parks data, the Great Salt Lake marina only attracted a little more than 54,000 people during the 2017 fiscal year.
The park drew slightly more than 143,000 visitors in the 2021 fiscal year, a spike from 100,000 during 2020. More than 70,000 people have already visited the park during the first five months of the current fiscal year, an indication that the wave of interest is ongoing.
Those visitors are coming at a time when one of the parts of the lake reached the lowest depths ever recorded.
People are starting to realize that, hey, this has been right here under our noses for generations — and while we’ve taken minerals from the lake, maybe we haven’t taken care of the lake.
–Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville
When Nelson approached Utah State Parks officials about a new visitors center a few years ago, they told him they had some renderings of a possible new building at that time. Those were the designs presented last week.
A new visitors center would become a “centerpiece” for the park, Rasmussen said. It would serve as a place for children and tourists to learn about the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem, its prehistoric importance and recent cultural history. It’s also a place where researchers can go to study the lake — and even provide a possible event center. Nelson said the facility would have observation decks, educational dioramas and history exhibits within all these possibilities.
It’s a place that could serve as an outdoor recreation hub or even a “gateway” to Salt Lake City. One thing they believe is certain, it would be so much more than what a triple-wide trailer can offer.
And given the new efforts to preserve the drying natural wonder, a new visitors center can help people appreciate everything the lake offers.
“People are starting to realize that, hey, this has been right here under our noses for generations — and while we’ve taken minerals from the lake, maybe we haven’t taken care of the lake,” Nelson said. “This visitors center would help restore the lake to its proper role, its proper prominence in the scheme of things and return respect to the lake and proper care of the lake.”
When asked about water levels, Rasmussen said the park is already in one of the areas where the lake levels are deeper than most other parts of the lake; Nelson added that additional boardwalks could be added if the lake levels continue to decrease.
Since the building is not considered in Gov. Spencer Cox’s official budget, Rasmussen said he would hold a “neutral stance” on the proposal. A Utah Division of State Parks spokesman also said he was unavailable for interviews. He told the subcommittee he was there to speak on behalf of any benefits that a new visitors center would provide.
As of Wednesday, Nelson said he hasn’t heard one way or another about the proposal’s chances. The subcommittee is expected to advance some proposals toward the final state budget in the coming days and weeks. The final 2023 fiscal year budget is typically passed toward the end of the legislative session, which is March 4 this year.
“I’m hoping that it will be approved but I have no assurances,” he said. “I’m just kind of at the mercy of those ultimate decision-makers on the executive appropriations committee.”