Two Murray leaders ride off to one sunsetJan 03, 2022 03:17PM ● By Shaun Delliskave
Mayor Blair Camp in the Murray City Mayor’s office. (Shaun Delliskave/City Journals)
Their tenure as Murray elected officials included presiding over one of the most tumultuous times in the city’s history since World War II. Now Mayor Blair Camp and City Councilor Dale Cox’s terms will end in January, after overseeing the town in a pandemic and watching a wave of new development proposals that will change the face of Murray.
Camp and Cox took office in 2018, without any clue that a pandemic crisis would overtake them halfway into their term. Murray has not faced such a crisis in its history since World War II redefined the community eight decades ago. Moreover, the ever-changing nature of the pandemic made it especially difficult to govern.
“Early on was a real challenge because there was so much information coming in,” Camp said. “So many conflicting voices. We literally met regularly, and we got really proficient with Zoom. We had a lot of meetings on what type of mask mandates we had to do. What do we need to do to protect the public and protect our own employees?”
“It’s been interesting; there’s been a lot of unknowns,” Cox said. “We have to do the best we can with the information that we have at the time, and the information you had, shifted.”
In addition to a lethal virus that Murray’s employees would encounter with the public, city leaders had to deal with the economic fallout of losing sales tax revenue. According to the State of Utah, Murray had one of the steepest declines in tax revenue in the entire state, and city operations were jeopardized.
“The mayor asked that they suspend the base budget, and then he presented us with a (new) budget, and then we asked the department heads to cut 5% off that. They did because we had no idea what that impact would be on city funds. We wanted to make sure that we maintained city services like fire, water and sewer. We weathered the storm pretty well; the department heads did a great job. It wasn’t quite as drastic as we thought it would be, but the sales tax became steady. At the end of the year, we were able to put most of the things back that were cut,” Cox said.
“Thankfully, so far, it’s bounced back. Murray’s sales tax is booming. It’s increasing, and it’s higher than last year,” Camp added.
Murray’s growing pains
The pandemic also created a backlog of new development proposals. Utah’s governor and legislature have sided with developers in staring down municipal building regulations. Mixed-use has become the latest thing, as retailers such as RC Willey and Kmart shut down and large box stores remain vacant.
“I was in a meeting about a month ago with Gov. Spencer Cox, who said, ‘All those who ran on the platform of no development, you better have something else to run on because we’re going to develop.’ If we are going to develop, it has to be smart development. I am not a fan of high density. I think Murray can develop with medium to low density,” Cox said.
Developers have proposed mixed-use developments to meet housing demands and still provide a commercial tax base by incorporating high-density housing with storefronts. However, at the beginning of 2021, the onslaught of mixed-use applications became so overwhelming that the city council enacted a six-month moratorium (the longest allowed by state law) to study the matter and adopt new zoning types.
During that time, the city came up with Village and Center Mixed-Use zones that modified the amount of housing that could fit on a site and defined how a project has to incorporate into surrounding neighborhoods.
Mayor Camp said, “The big-box retail seems to be a thing of the past. I was sorry to see RC Willey shutter its Murray store. If your question is, if you want to see high-density housing go into these former commercial sites, the answer is yes and no. I think the former Kmart site is a great location for this mixed-use because you have 900 East with carrying capacity.
“But I don’t want to see every vacant lot or store become high-density housing. No, I don’t. I do recognize there’s a need for some, but I think the key to it is careful planning. A lot of these areas that people are complaining about high-density housing going into are zoned for that. The general plan calls for that.”
“I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, ‘I want the old Murray.’ And, I asked them, ‘What old Murray? The Murray when the smokestacks were here or when this was all farmland and there were no houses? What old Murray are you referring to?’ Murray continues to progress. Progress is hard; progress is hard on me. But progress is inevitable, it’s just on how you do it,” Cox said.
Still, Camp and Cox are cautious regarding development, especially past Murray projects that have ended up problematic or were approved under old zoning regulations.
“I would have never voted for Bonnyview Apartments (4900 S. Commerce Dr.) or the 4800 Lofts (4900 S. Galleria Dr.) development. That’s too dense, but people have to realize that those were rezoned a decade ago. We can vote no and tell him they can’t build, and then they can sue the city and still build,” Cox said.
“The Fireclay is an area that causes huge problems. It was the first of its kind. The commercial wasn’t built that was supposed to be built. The parking structures that were supposed to be going in there weren’t built. The developer walked away after the apartments were built. We’ve been left to deal with those kinds of issues and challenges,” Camp said.
Perhaps the most extensive development during their time in office was the entire revamp of downtown Murray. Two years ago, the city finished constructing a new firehouse that serves as headquarters for the Murray FD and demolished the old fire station whose property is part of a new city hall. It’s a project that was supposed to have been completed this year.
“I was hoping to have it completed during my term, but we weren’t able to do it due to the delays caused by COVID and the cell phone tower. We’re going to have a new city hall, the first new city hall since 1908 built specifically as a city hall. That was one of the things (former Mayor) Ted Eyre really wanted. He was afraid that it really wouldn’t get done. Ted was really pushing for those two things and asked me to do [it] when I was running for mayor—see that city hall would get done and see that a project gets started on State Street,” Camp said.
The 48th and State development project would transform the east side of State Street into a huge mixed-use project with two six-story mixed-use residential buildings comprising 262 rental units. In addition, construction would raze a half-dozen century-old storefronts on State Street and two historic homes on Poplar Street. A September open house attracted the attention of many, including historic preservationists.
“That meeting was hijacked by a historic preservation group,” Camp said. “I think their complaint was that they didn’t have enough input. Therein lies a problem. How do you give the public input before you give them input?”
Cox said, “I like the developer, but what I didn’t like was the process. I understood when we picked the developer why we kept that one close to the breast, but once we had picked the developer, it should have been an open, public process. Maybe have a committee with some rational citizens, people from the city, and the developer sit down and discuss what we needed to build instead of presenting what we have.
“I think the best option is getting more public input to decide what will work there. It has to work with the property. You have to have a group of people that have a vision of what will go there. A developer can build and make their money, but also it has to be a valuable asset to Murray citizens. And that doesn’t come from the mayor’s office or the council or planning and zoning. It comes from a group of people, with different backgrounds, that can sit down and discuss and come with something that works.”
Camp added, “It’s a good, viable project. I thought it was enough; people apparently don’t, and that’s fine. History will bear out whether it was good to put it off or to wait for something else, but we’ve waited many years for something to happen to that corner.”
With so many significant projects in the works, why not run for re-election? Camp actually had a short stint as mayor before his full term as mayor. When Mayor Ted Eyre, dying of cancer, declined to run for a second term in 2017, then-City Councilor Blair Camp had already declared himself a candidate for mayor. However, Eyre died in office before completing his term in August 2017.
City Councilor Diane Turner was appointed acting mayor until the city council could appoint an interim mayor. Camp had filed as a candidate for mayor and applied to be made interim mayor, and he was seated by the council in September 2017, thus giving Camp the status of an incumbent in the election and giving him a three-month term as mayor.
“I never intended to be a career politician when I ran for city council. My plan was to run for two terms and then retire. I never intended to run for mayor. I just intended to run for council. Ted Eyre asked me when he learned that he wasn’t going to be able to run again if I was interested in running for mayor, and I told him no, I wasn’t. Then he asked me again, and he asked me again, and it got me thinking about it. All of a sudden, I found myself encouraged to run for mayor. I thought, ‘I probably have enough gas left in my tank another election,’… so I thought it would be a fairly seamless transition,” Camp said.
With Camp’s seat vacant, the city council appointed Pam Cotter to fill his position due to his interim appointment as mayor. While Cotter was not running for election, Dale Cox made his first election bid to fill District 2’s council seat. Cox handily won his election.
“I never wanted to be a career politician. I wanted to get in and do what we accomplished. That is, secure a good tax base and expand where we can make sure the men and women working for Murray are taken care of, because that, in turn, will make sure that the citizens are taken care of. I’m 71 years old. I’m done, and you need young minds that have good ideas,” Cox said.
With their exit from politics, each has travel on their schedule. Cox has a motorhome that he and his wife, Jan, plan to get away in, while Camp and his wife, Paula, hope to add a few miles on their side-by-side. In addition, there are specific things that they wish to be remembered for.
“When I came on, we were bleeding employees because we didn’t have this (wage-step) program. We weren’t the lowest totem pole, but we were not very high, and we were a training ground for city employees. We were able to put the step program together and bring their salaries up to what they should be,” Cox said.
According to Camp, he feels that finally getting the downtown revamp underway has given him the most satisfaction. With the completion of the fire station and the start of city hall, only the 48th and State project is incomplete.
“Yeah, there’s been a lot of satisfaction being mayor, as far as getting something accomplished and moving forward with projects, working with department heads, and so forth, but there are also days I wonder ‘why on earth am I doing this?’
“The people that work for Murray City have been terrific. Most are very professional and want to do a good job. But even more importantly, the residents I deal with have been supportive. It has been great serving the people of Murray. All in all, people in Murray are good,” Camp said.