The biggest news to come out of Utah County in 2018

January 1, 2019
UVU President Astrid Tuminez speaks with Justin Jones, her chief of staff, and Stephen Whyte, associate vice president of university marketing and communications, on her first day in office on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, in Orem.

As Utah County grows, there’s no shortage of news across the valley, and 2018 was no exception.

The year brought significant change to the area, with opportunities for budding new growth and others to heal and come together.

The following represent the 10 most significant happenings for Utah County residents in 2018.

10. UVX begins service

After years of planning and development (and backlash from some), the Utah Valley Express bus route — otherwise known as Bus Rapid Transit or BRT — began service in August in time for the universities’ new semesters. Immediately prior to its operation starting, it was announced that a federal grant would allow the public to ride free on the UVX route from Provo Towne Centre mall to the Orem intermodal hub for the next three years. This was in addition to the news that Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University students, staff and their families could ride the entire UTA system for free for 10 years. Center pick-up and drop-off stations opened in December, completing the two years of construction on University Parkway and University Avenue.

The route provides buses every 6-7 minutes during peak times.

9. UVU gets new president

With former university President Matthew Holland leaving during the summer to be a mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a new president was selected to steer Utah’s largest state-run university. Of the applicants interviewed, the Board of Regents settled on a female executive of Microsoft living in Asia. Astrid Tuminez officially took over the reins in September, wowing the campus by jumping right in to the thick of things. She is the first female and racial minority president at the university. Tuminez is a first-generation college student herself, raised in poverty in the Philippines until she attended BYU and Harvard University before getting her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She speaks many languages, including Filipino, Tagalog, Ilongo, Russian, French and a working knowledge of Spanish.

An inauguration date has not yet been announced.

8. Evermore opens its gates

The community had been talking about this inventive and state-of-the-art experience for years and in 2018, the gates into the new world of Evermore were opened to the public with significant buzz and fanfare in October.

Located off Interstate 15 in Pleasant grove lies the 11-acre old-style European hamlet theme park that changes decor and visitor experience based on the season — there are three: Lore, Aurora and Mythos. It is founded and created by Ken Bretschneider centered entirely around building an immersive, suspended reality experience.

With every dollar earned invested in the concept, Bretschneider and his family were all in, bringing on top talent from across the country, including Disney Imagineers and artists from the Hollywood special effects industry, not to mention an impressive number of people from the local market. The next step was the building of a top-notch studio and finally, the creation of Evermore itself.

It really can’t be explained — you just have to visit it.

7. Freedom Festival parade faces criticism, then acceptance

On the heels of community outcry in 2017 for denying LGBTQ groups from its parade, while allowing other non-patriotic entities to participate, the Freedom Festival angered more when it once again rejected LGBTQ applicants in 2018 despite coming to an agreement with Provo City on a contract including a new non-discrimination clause in order to continue a partnership. Eventually, the Freedom Festival agreed to allow several LGBTQ organizations to march in the grand parade after county commissioner Nathan Ivie threatened to withdraw county funds from the festival.

6. Utah County government sees

plenty of drama

It was the year of lawsuits, it seems. The county filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors in 2018 in an effort to tackle Utah’s opioid abuse epidemic. It also filed a suit against Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for not appointing one of the county’s selections for the new Utah Transit Authority Board. Shortly thereafter, the county dropped the suit against the governor when a third selection was submitted and approved.

Beyond lawsuits, the county was not without significant personnel issues. The controversy over county commissioner Greg Graves’ inappropriate work behavior that surfaced in December 2017 continued to play out through 2018, with him largely skipping meetings and work for the first month and a half of the year. County clerk Bryan Thompson, facing an upcoming election, did not receive enough delegate votes at the county Republican’s convention in April, eliminating him from the primary election. Issues plagued the county clerk’s office in recent years, with insufficient staffing and polls on Election Day, even improper mailing of ballots. After the midterm election, Herbert went so far as to say Utah County was the “epicenter of dysfunction.”

In July, Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy unexpectedly resigned in a commission meeting citing communication issues with the commissioners over a $1 million budget shortfall.

5. Elizabeth Salgado’s body found

After missing for more than three years, police confirmed the Provo student’s remains had been located in Hobble Creek Canyon on May 18 after a man stopped off the side of the road to go to the bathroom in some bushes and saw the remains. Elizabeth Elena Laguna-Salgado, 26, vanished from downtown Provo on April 16, 2015 never to be seen again. Since locating her skeletal remains, police are treating the case as a homicide investigation, however the family is frustrated with the lack of leads yet to be had by the end of the year.

Salgado, of Chiapas, Mexico, was only in Utah for 20 days before her disappearance. She had recently returned from an LDS mission in Mexico and came to Provo to learn English.

4. LDS Church president dies, new president announced

On Jan. 2, President Thomas S. Monson, president of the LDS Church, died at the age of 90 of causes incident to age. Monson had served the church in leadership positions for 54 years. He was set apart as the church’s 16th president in February 2008 following the death of Gordon B. Hinckley. On Jan. 16, Russell M. Nelson, 93, was called and set apart by the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the 17th president of the church. Members of the worldwide church later sustained him in a solemn assembly in its April general conference. Reorganization of the church’s First Presidency also took place, with President Dallin H. Oaks named as first counselor and President Henry B. Eyring as second counselor. Following the new leadership put into place, the church saw many changes, including departure from the Boy Scouts of America, announcement of a reduction in Sunday services’ length, as well as organizational changes to its bodies for men.

3. Midterm elections shake things up

While typically fairly uneventful, Utah’s midterm elections saw record participation throughout the state and in Utah County as well. In part, it might have been spurred by several close races and high-profile ballot measures voted on in individual cities and as a state. While numbers were not as high in Utah County, Utah as a whole passed Proposition 2 for medical marijuana, Proposition 3 for Medicaid expansion and Proposition 4 to study Utah’s districting by an impartial body.

Utah voted for Mitt Romney to fill the vacancy left by Orrin Hatch who announced he would be retiring after 42 years. Utah’s 4th Congressional District race was the closest in the state, coming in within 700 votes, between incumbent — and Saratoga Springs resident — Republican Mia Love and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. Ultimately, McAdams claimed the victory. Since losing the election, it was widely reported that Love missed 83.5 percent of House votes in November and December — more than any other outgoing representative.

In Utah County, the election brought the passage of a bond in Provo to upgrade city and police facilities. Orem also passed a bond to upgrade its recreation center and library, and also passed a hotly contested proposition to allow for the rezoning of a single parcel of property adjacent to UVU’s campus to allow for a developer to build high-density housing catering to students. Nebo School District also passed a significant bond.

2. Missing Eureka teens’ bodies found in abandoned mine

On March 28 law enforcement located two bodies in the Tintic Standard No. 2 mine shaft near Eureka, later confirmed to be missing teens Riley Powell,18, and Breezy Otteson, 17. The teens had been missing since Dec. 30, 2017 when they left Tooele to go to Spanish Fork and Eureka. Memorial services were held for the teens in April.

A Eureka man was arrested in the case for allegedly murdering them out of jealousy that his girlfriend had a male visitor in their house. Jerrod Baum, 41, was charged with two counts of aggravated murder, which allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty, as well as aggravated kidnapping and other felonies.

Baum’s live-in girlfriend, Morgan Henderson, was arrested and charged with obstructing justice. Henderson pleaded guilty on Oct. 5 to 10 counts of obstruction of justice and was sentenced to serve three years in jail or until Baum’s case is resolved, as well as five years of probation. Her sentence included a plea deal, with an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors in the case against Baum.

1. Wildfires blanket mountains

Multiple fires threatened areas near and in Utah County in 2018, but none so devastating as the Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires that threatened thousands of homes in southern Utah County, causing the mandatory evacuations for entire cities of Woodland Hills and Elk Ridge in September, impacting 6,000 people.

In less than a week, the fires grew to more than 100,000 acres, and designated the No. 1 priority fire in the nation at that time. At the height of the fires, more than 1,500 personnel were fighting to contain them. U.S. Highway 6 was closed temporarily at one point; the community outpouring for those affected and those helping was significant, so much so that departments urged residents to cease donations as they were overflowing.

On Oct. 8 the two fires were finally reported at 100 percent containment. However, the cities’ troubles are likely not over as the burned canyons face issues of debris flow coming off the burn scar and damaging homes in the future and risking contaminating drinking water supplies for the next five years. What follows are many tasks and hurdles for these small cities from which some will find funding in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Protection program.

Honorable mentions

There was plenty of Utah business news that topped headlines in 2018 with significant impacts, including Trader Joe’s opening a location in Orem after years of Provo (and Orem) residents begging the grocery chain to come to the area. It was also announced that a Facebook data center was approved to locate to Eagle Mountain after land was rezoned and approved by all taxing entities before the announcement of which tech company was making the deal. Finally, market-analytics company Qualtrics, based in Provo, was acquired in November for $8 billion by a German company.

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