Moab on the move

Under construction in Moab is the Helen M. Knight Elementary School, which will replace two elementary schools.

A sign along U.S. Highway 191 previews a 17-bed, critical-access hospital scheduled for completion by December in Moab. It will be operated by Moab Valley Health Care.

MOAB, Utah — When there’s a construction boom in Moab, it’s usually for the sake of the tourists.

The town of some 5,000 residents estimates about one million visitors each year ogle its dramatic vistas, partake in a plethora of recreational activities, and hop over to two of the national parks in its backyard.

But Moab’s recent construction craze isn’t about new hotels and restaurants. Five new construction projects — a regional hospital, two new school buildings, a community center and a new bridge — are largely for the benefit of folks who live here year-round. Coincidentally, all of the projects except the community center are slated for completion by the year’s end.

“Moab is under construction right now,” Mayor Dave Sakrison said with a laugh. “You can’t hardly not notice it.”

It’s mostly by chance that the town’s capital-improvement projects are springing up simultaneously. Each is run and funded by separate entities.

Voters in 2008 passed a $31 million bond issue for Grand County School District to build a new elementary school and a vocational school. The new, 120,000-square-foot Helen M. Knight Elementary School, with 35 classrooms, will replace two elementary schools. District officials determined they could save $7 million by combining two schools, said Robert Farnsworth, business administrator for the district.

Voters overwhelmingly passed the measure before the economy took a nosedive, and now some residents are critical of the project, Farnsworth said. Discounts on construction costs, however, have been a benefit of building during a recession.

As outlined in the measure, any excess money in the bond measure after construction costs go toward remodeling the middle school. A savings of $500,000 will go toward that project, he said. Students should be in the schools by the fall as construction is slated for completion in July.

“I think it will be a positive thing for the community,” Farnsworth said.

Officials at the not-for-profit Allen Memorial Hospital have long wanted to replace the 53-year-old, outdated facility. That’s why officials and residents were thrilled to see ground broken in August for the Moab Regional Hospital and Canyonlands Care Center.

A capital campaign pulled in $4 million of the $29 million construction price tag. The 52,000-square-foot facility will be licensed as a 17-bed, critical-access hospital and operated by Moab Valley Health Care. It is scheduled to be finished by December.

Canyonlands Care Center, operated by Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District, will include a 32-bed, long-term-care unit. Completion is expected at the end of this year or the beginning of 2011.

Securing funding for the new Moab Recreation and Aquatic Center was a bit tricky, as officials worked for three years to come up with grant money, Sakrison said.

Moab doesn’t have a city property tax, which makes funding harder to come by for capital improvements. It does collect taxes through tourist-based activities.

Costs for the center with an indoor-outdoor pool are $9 million and probably would cost more if construction costs weren’t hampered by the economy, he said. The project is expected to be completed in spring 2011.

“Especially with construction being down, every construction company has been able to bid on some of these projects,” Sakrison said. “If you’ve got money, now is the time to build.”

Perhaps Moab’s most visible construction project greets visitors on the way into or out of the north end of town.

Colorado River Bridge, connecting U.S. Highway 191 over the river, is slated for completion at the end of the year, which is a year earlier than previously planned, said spokesman Kevin Kitchen of the Utah Department of Transportation.

Motorists in the past two weeks have been allowed to drive on the first completed stage of the bridge. When finished, it will include two, side-by-side, two-lane bridges, adorned on the sides with arches.

Aesthetic designs on the bridge were developed with the help of community members, Kitchen said. Project workers were especially cognizant of the bridge’s link between Moab and its most famed attraction, Arches National Park. Officials were able to continue work without stalling traffic, Kitchen said.

“The beauty of this bridge is it’s all built above water off the mainline traffic,” he said. “It’s also the probably one of the more unique projects in the state.”

The $38.5 million bridge replaces an outdated, steel-girder bridge that was built in 1955.

A couple of nearby businesses have been affected by the project, but the impact has been minimal, Kitchen said. River runners under the bridge have been good about steering clear of construction, and motorists have been patient, he said.

Once completed, the swooping design should fit well with the redrock backdrops.

“You really got to hand it to the local people,” Kitchen said. “They really helped with solutions to make it fit in as much as possible with the surroundings.”


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