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Provo begins demolition to build new city center

Construction on the new Provo city hall officially began Monday at 10 a.m. with demolition of the old Rocky Mountain Drive-in at 50 S. 500 West.

Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, after brief comments on a live Facebook feed, climbed into a large backhoe and dropped the first smashing claw on the drive-in’s southeast side.

“Today is a historic day for Provo City as we see the first visible signs of construction on our new Provo City Center,” Kaufusi said. “This day would not be possible were it not for our citizens seeing this need and trusting us.”

After more than two years of looking at options and warming residents to the needs and wants of the city, voters approved the Police, Fire & City Facilities Bond in November 2018.

That vote authorized the city to issue up to $69 million in general obligation bonds for the new city center, and for a remodel on Fire Station 2.

“Our goal for the new public safety building is focused on safety and security for our employees and guests, a facility that allows us to be more efficient in our work and large enough to handle future growth,” said Rich Ferguson, police chief in Provo.

The center is not just for the personnel and safety officers but for the residents as well, according to Kaufusi.

“Provo City Center will be the ‘Citizen’s City Center,’ and I want each citizen to be able to track the construction progress, know their money is being wisely spent and feel confident we are keeping the promises we made to them,” Kaufusi said.

“With that goal in mind, we are releasing our new construction website at ProvoCityCenter.org, complete with videos, renderings, a feedback form and a timeline,” said Kaufusi.

ProvoCityCenter.org will be active by Wednesday. Until that time, the website can be accessed at http://newcitycenter.provo.org.

“Updates will be added regularly, with a time-lapse video capturing the entire process from Day One to Day Done,” said Kaufusi. “And, most importantly, we want continued feedback from you.”

The city center will be a 164,000 square foot building located at the corner of Center Street and 500 West and will anchor the downtown. One half of the city center will be devoted to public safety and include a new police and fire department headquarters.

Demolition of existing vacant buildings on the project site is being completed by the Provo Public Works staff with a cost savings to the project of $100,000.

Kaufusi and her administrative staff are closely monitoring the use of funds as the build-out begins. Having some of it done by city employees trained in those skills is one way those savings are being done.

The existing city center, built in 1972, is not seismically sound and is inadequate in meeting the needs of Provo citizens. It is more cost-effective to replace than rebuild, according to Kaufusi.

Provo City Center is being designed using the Construction Manager/General Contractor (CM/GC) method. This method, used on both the Recreation Center and Energy Building, allows Provo City, the design team, the contractor and citizens to work together from design to final construction to create the most dynamic and cost-effective city center, according to Kaufusi.

In another cost-saving move, it was announced that Provo’s Channel 17 will move into where the Provo Dispatch is located when it moves into the new facilities. It is anticipated the savings will be $1 million.

The pre-work for any construction project is vital but the real fun begins when the public can start to see action on the site,” said Scott Henderson, project manager. “Demolition of the vacant buildings on 500 West and Center clears the way for the Provo City Center, designed and located to be an impressive gateway to our downtown.”

“From conception to design, the Provo City Center has been citizen-centered,” Henderson added. “Through analyzing current city operations, as well as incorporating public outreach, we have designed a functional space to meet the daily needs of our citizens. We want the citizen experience to be such that they find it convenient, rather than confusing, as has been the case.”

Wayne Parker, city administrator for Provo City, shared an update about the operators of the original Rocky Mountain Drive-in, that was demolished on Monday.

“Luckily, the owners opened a new and exciting restaurant just a block-and-a-half away in downtown Provo,” Parker said. “JJ Burger is located at 40 N. 400 West and they offer the famous Rocky Mountain fare of burgers, fries, scones, and their famous signature milkshakes. We were thrilled that the restaurant was able to relocate so close to home and to continue to be part of downtown Provo’s success.”

Jon Huntsman Jr. says he would support Trump as governor, fight for mental health reform

Gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. made it clear he would support President Donald Trump as governor of Utah and said he would focus on addressing mental health and bringing economic opportunity to rural counties.

Huntsman, who served as Utah’s governor from 2005 to 2009 and more recently as United States Ambassador to Russia, made these comments in a speech Monday during a Utah County Republican Women event at the Provo Library.

“We have had a statewide failure on mental health,” said Huntsman, who referenced the high suicide rate among young Utahns.

According to the Utah Department of Health, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 18 and the second leading cause of death for those ages 18-44 in 2018.

Huntsman called on residents and officials alike to help “demystify” conversations about mental health, an issue that he said is “hard to talk about.”

“We need a declaration of war on this insidious problem,” he said.

While Huntsman praised the state’s economy and called Utah “among the hottest, fastest (growing) places in the country,” he said rural counties are struggling to keep up with other parts of the state.

“Right now, a lot of those counties, a lot of those 29, are not doing so well,” Huntsman said. “And we need to figure out how we can take the prosperity that you have right down the road … and make sure that there are opportunities to expand in other places as well.”

Huntsman told the group of Republican women that he would support Trump, adding that he has known “Donald” for a number of years and even helped out with his 2016 presidential campaign.

“I think it’s really important to have a governor who supports President Trump,” said Huntsman.

When asked whether he would serve out his full term if he was tapped for another federal position, he said he would.

“We’ve done our federal service,” Huntsman said, referring to himself and his wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman.

Last Friday, Huntsman announced that Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi would be his running mate in the 2020 governor race. He praised Kaufusi on Monday, calling her an “inspiring” leader with the ability to move people.

Kaufusi spoke briefly at the Utah County Republican Women event and said accepting the opportunity to run for lieutenant governor, and give up her role as mayor of Provo if elected, was a difficult choice to make.

“This decision did not come easy,” Kaufusi said. “I worried and just stewed over this for days and days and shed a lot of tears.”

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who is up for re-election this year, spoke about raising property taxes in order to balance the county’s budget.

It is not easy to raise taxes during an election year, Ivie said, adding that he did so “because it put the county on a fiscally stable path forward.”

Ivie criticized U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, who narrowly beat Republican incumbent Rep. Mia Love for the 4th Congressional District seat in 2018, and said the election may have turned out differently if the Utah County elections division was adequately staffed at the time. The commission increased the elections division’s budget by $1 million, or 62.2%, this year.

There were “hours and hours of lines” at polling locations in Utah County in 2018 “because we did not sufficiently staff our elections,” Ivie said, “and we have a Democrat siding with (U.S. House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and attacking our president representing Utah as a result of our elections failure instead of a wonderful Republican woman.”

Utah brides look for last-minute accommodations after nationwide event venue ceases operations

Utah brides are among thousands of couples across the nation looking for last-minute wedding venues after a judge ordered a local event venue company to cease operations last Thursday.

Noah’s Event Venues is a Utah-based company that oversaw 42 event centers across the country before closing dozens of locations after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last May. They had locations in Lehi and Lindon.

During a hearing in early February, Judge Joel Meeker told the company’s operators the remaining locations could not continue despite the administration’s optimistic projections for 2020, according to court documents.

In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a trustee collects all of the debtor’s assets and sells any applicable assets. After the trustee sells the assets and pays the debtor, the exempted amount and a commission is taken by the trustee for overseeing the distribution, the net proceeds of the liquidation are distributed to creditors.

Due to the nature of the bankruptcy, as many as 7,500 people are forced to wait in line for a chance to get their money back.

The company reached out to clients via email on Monday letting couples know the company would no longer be able to host their events. However, customers could file an administrative claim. The statement also said that many of the building owners have expressed their willingness to continue to host events under different operators.

The company cited negative publicity and a court order for its inability to see through contracts with thousands of brides, and in the emailed statement, added that the company was working to reorganize in order to continue hosting events.

Noah’s is hoping to work with clients interested in hosting their events at the initially reserved locations and have asked affected customers to email operations@noahseventvenue.com with the location, event date and event type in the subject line.

Maile Tuihalangingie is one of the brides affected by the latest developments. While she was in the process of moving from California to Utah, family and friends reached out to Tuihalangingie after seeing the news on social media. With her wedding less than two weeks away, Saturday was the first time she had heard about the company closure.

“When I found out the news through family and friends, I didn’t even know how to react,” she said.

Finding out about the venue’s closure was the beginning of a nightmare for Tuihalangingie. Her family and friends reached out to any nearby venues to see if there was any availability, and even then, available venues were unable or unwilling to allow third-party caterers, for which Tuihalangingie had also already paid.

Tuihalangingie found the South Jordan location online and visited in person before booking not only the ballroom but also the gym, game room and theater for her nieces and nephews to enjoy during the reception. The couple had also paid for linens, a photo backdrop, lighting and miscellaneous decorations. At the time of the initial announcement, Tuihalangingie had already paid all $5,600 of the total cost.

Tuihalangingie contacted Noah’s first thing Monday morning but was unable to reach anyone at the company. The bride-to-be had still not heard from the company on Monday afternoon. Tuihalangingie had, however, heard from a new company who reached out to South Jordan brides with the potential of honoring their reservations.

Kathren Jensen, Noah’s vice president of sales and operations, began reaching out to Utah couples who made reservations at the South Jordan location Monday afternoon. According to an email sent to clients, Jensen — the founder and owner of the SLC Event Venue — is taking over the contracts with brides who initially booked with Noah’s.

Jensen worked out of the South Jordan location for 12 years and assured clients in the email that she knows the venue as well as its policies, contracts and clients’ general needs very well.

“The thought of closing this successful location is heartbreaking to me, which is why I reached out to the Noah’s and the building owners to take over as an operator,” Jensen said in the email. “This location does extremely well, and I have every confidence we can take over your contract without any additional stress on you the client.”

In order for SLC Event Venue to take over as the new operator, Jensen said the company requires commitments from existing customers. Jensen assured previously booked clients that if the event was already paid in full, the new operator would honor the reservation. Likewise, if a client was already making payments on a schedule, couples would continue the payments to SLC Event Venue. Clients would not be required to repay anything that was previously paid to Noah’s.

Still, for a number of couples, this news isn’t necessarily reassuring.

“It still makes me nervous,” Tuihalangingie said. “The fact that we signed a contract and paid it off, I don’t know what assurance I could get. I’m nervous of taking that risk.”

Before Noah’s announced its closing, several brides reached out to representatives after the company initially filed for bankruptcy to voice their concerns. Each time, the company responded to the couples to confirm the dates and locations and put their worries at ease.

A representative for a Texas location told one bride in August that Noah’s had signed a 20-year lease with the location of her event and wrote “I can guarantee that the location will remain open” just months before the company announced the nation-wide closure.

As more information come to light, northern Utah businesses are continuing to step up to help couples affected by the decision.

Jill Streadbeck, director of the Alpine Art Center in Alpine, Utah, says dozens of Utah businesses are coming together to provide for brides in the community in need of venues.

While some venues have been able to offer discounts up to 50%, others are only asking couples to match the cost of operations on the day to try to save future newlyweds as much money as possible.

“A lot of the brides’ concerns have been: Are they going to get their money back?’” Streadbeck said. “I just want to be as helpful as I can. It’s not about the money or making a profit off of it, it’s ‘let’s help the people who need help,’ that’s all the venues are doing.”

Every little girl dreams of their wedding day, she said, and to have such a large part of the event change with short notice can be heartbreaking.

Online communities have also popped up to help brides across the nation find alternative accommodations. In these virtual groups, brides are posting what Noah’s promised them and venue directors in each area are reaching out to offer their services at discounted prices.

Tuihalangingie said the online communities have also helped affected couples get together and also helped her feel not as alone during such an unexpectedly turbulent time.

Bill sponsored by Provo lawmaker would require prosecutors to track data on race, gender

A new bill aims to increase transparency in Utah’s criminal justice system by mandating that prosecutors keep track of who is being arrested and tried in the state.

The bill, which was introduced last Friday by Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, would require county prosecutors, jails and courts in Utah to keep data on the race, ethnicity and gender, among other data points, of those booked into jail facilities. This data would then be reported to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice twice a year.

House Bill 288 would also require all prosecutorial agencies in the state to publish certain office policies beginning Jan. 1, 2021.

The policies that “shall be published online and made available in printed form on request” include those on screening and filing criminal charges, plea bargains, sentencing recommendations, discovery practices, diversion programs, restorative justice programs and when to prosecute a juvenile as an adult.

Any prosecutor office that fails to make these policies public “may not receive grants or other funding intended to assist with bringing the agency into compliance,” according to the bill’s text.

Judkins said in an interview that, about a year ago, she was looking into putting together a committee or task force to look at “convictions and the integrity in the prosecutor’s office(s)” throughout Utah.

“And as I was looking at that, I realized I couldn’t find any data about what was happening in the prosecutor’s offices,” said Judkins. “There’s just not a readily accessible way to gather data.”

Tracking data on race, ethnicity and gender will help identify any “unconscious bias” in the criminal justice system, the Provo representative said.

“If we have it, we need to confront it and see what to do about it,” Judkins said. “I’m not saying that’s happening, but we do have a disproportionate number of people of color in our jails and prisons.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah supports H.B. 288, according to Jason Groth, coordinator of the group’s Smart Justice Utah program.

Groth said the bill will help policymakers and prosecutors “address some issues we know have been lingering,” including racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“We’ve really had trouble pinning down the drivers of those disparities,” said Groth, “and this bill will give us that opportunity to find the drivers of racial disparities, if they exist in the prosecutor offices, and address those accordingly.”

The data would also give prosecutors a better understanding of which programs, whether diversion programs for criminals or service programs for victims, are successful and which aren’t, Groth added.

“This bill allows us to look at data comprehensively that has been siloed in different agencies,” he said.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said he supports requiring prosecutor offices to track data on race, ethnicity and gender, adding that the Utah County Attorney’s Office has historically not tracked this information.

Leavitt said he is implementing policy changes later this year and, among them, is requiring his office to track such demographic data.

“It’s important that we look at racial bias, it’s important that we look at gender bias (and) it’s important to be able to understand when we file charges and when we don’t,” Leavitt said.

But Leavitt said there are aspects of the bill that he doesn’t see as necessary, including requiring prosecutor offices to give the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice data on offender tracking numbers, initial appearance dates and dates of initial discovery disclosure.

Leavitt said this data is “not necessarily helpful” for identifying bias in the criminal justice system or holding prosecutors accountable.

The purpose of the bill is not to say that prosecutors in Utah are bad actors, Judkins said, adding that “we have really good, good prosecutors in our state.”

“This just makes the process more transparent, which is always a good idea when we’re talking about government,” said Judkins.