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The City Journals

Olympia Hills developer Doug Young shares his side of the story

Jun 24, 2019 03:00PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

“Our own private highway” is how some residents of unincorporated Salt Lake County view Utah State Highway 111 or “Bacchus Highway.” Those days are numbered, with projects like Olympia Hills under consideration for a burgeoning Salt Lake Valley and whole state expected to double in population by 2050. (Raman Patal/Wikimedia Commons)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

It was 1975. The recent high-school graduate and his sweetheart from another school used to drive way out in the southwest valley in his tidy, but beat-up pickup truck, staring at the view of downtown from afar. 

The Mama's and Papas still had traction with their hit song “California Dreamin,” but Doug Young’s internal tune might have been more like “Southwest Quadrant Dreamin,” as the young man, soon to become a land developer, says he started envisioning a project that he now says he wants to be his life-defining work.

“This will be everything I’ve learned over the years, integrated into one,” Young said, hopeful.

Soft-spoken with a loud truck and an even louder development concept

Young is soft-spoken but drives a flashy, red truck.

He is a man big on manners, calling out media for taking up-close pictures of residents trying to communicate their positions at open houses.

Through his “LLC” (limited liability corporation), aptly named “The Last Holdout,” he is at work with his round-two Olympia Hills land-development proposal for nearly 940 acres in the Southwest Quadrant (SWQ).

The area he is firmly fixated on—with what he has called “patient money”—straddles both sides of the Bacchus Highway (Highway 111), running along the Oquirrhs. 

It is squarely in Herriman’s back yard, proximate to South Jordan, and, ultimately, of concern and interest to residents of six municipalities comprising the SWQ Mayors Council and unincorporated Salt Lake County (SLCO) alike.

“This is really important to me,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to live and work right here?” he hypothetically asked, on a clear-sky, spring-approaching-summer day.

The Last Holdout

The City Journals asked for and got a drive-about, narrated tour of the land Young has purchased for his proposed Olympia Hills project. The tour starts with “the last house from the town of Lark.”

Anyone up on their Utah history attending one of the Olympia Hills public-input sessions in March of this year, or from the previous vetting of the original proposal last summer, may recognize the name Lark. 

Now described as a “ghost town” on the internet, the Lark mining town from more than 150 years ago is more ghost, less town: According to Young, the last structure that was not either demolished or relocated to Copperton or elsewhere, the Bastian farm, now sits on land that was the missing puzzle piece for his Olympia Hills dream project that he now owns (reportedly purchased for $11.5 million).

Live-work-pay to play?

Young is pitching Olympia Hills as a high-density “live-work-play” community, comprising high-paying STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) jobs, akin to those powering the bustling Lehi-based Silicon Slopes community, just last month being named one of the top-10 small cities for small business, according to Verizon small-biz metrics

Young sees Silicon Slopes’ jobs as enviable, but deems its actual development “a disaster,” a very white-bred mono-culture cluster where employees “get in their cars and drive” to far-flung suburban destinations, creating or at least exacerbating the very transportation crisis the SWQ Mayors Council in general, and Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs in specific, have loudly critiqued.

Young’s current development model for Olympia Hills is contingent upon recruiting a mammoth tech firm, along the lines of a Facebook or an Amazon, to designate the area as one of its corporate headquarters. In this way, Young seems to genuinely draw development inspiration from Lark and the concept of mining towns, which were designed and built to fulfill all resident needs right within the community—work wages, supplies, and recreation.

Residents attending the proposed project’s open houses in both Herriman and South Jordan in March, wondered aloud how the project could get the attention of a Mark Zuckerberg, a Jeff Bezos, or any other captain of the mega-companies Young seeks as anchor tenants.

The answer remains to be seen. But it seems like it will definitely not be aided, in early stages, anyways, by the State of Utah’s Governor’s Office of Economic Development, or “GOED,” which pitches properties to businesses to relocate to Utah, but not until they are “move-in-ready,” to use a real estate phrase.

Go, but without GO-ED

“Interesting… scary,” is how GOED Associate Managing Director Thomas J. Wadsworth recently described the prospect of Olympia Hills’s ability to attract mega-companies.

Perhaps a strategy of recruiting smaller, even fledgling, Utah businesses could be the ticket. 

This year high-flying Merit Medical will do $1 billion in sales. The company was just a few-million-dollar startup when visionary medical-device CEO and founder Fred Lampropoulos, whom others called “crazy,” set his eyes on not just building a business, but helping create a community in under-developed South Jordan decades ago, purchasing 60 acres.

The company now boasts a $3 billion market cap and is committed to growing to twice its size in the next five years. It says 25-30 percent of its workforce lives in SoJo, and is slowly kludging together on-campus services like a free employee dental clinic and onsite medical and day-care facilities, which would seem to, someday, provide the red-carpet for co-located housing. When directly asked about an intention to do so, Lampropoulos declined further comment to City Journals.

Silicon Slopes’s ambassador, Executive Director Clint Betts, echoes the power of “grow your own” economic development, saying that communities get the greatest economic mojo by helping grow local business “fishes,” versus seeking the “whales” of the Amazon and Facebook ilk. 

In a 60-minute presentation to the SLCO Council in May, tech savant Betts repeatedly praised Olympia Hills, calling it out by name and stating it is the kind of development not just SWQ, but all of Utah needs. Betts is also the chair of the Salt Lake Chamber’s Housing Gap Coalition.

Another Daybreak?

The project that is, perhaps, blood-kin, at least in Young’s mind, to the proposed Olympia Hills, is South Jordan’s Daybreak planned community, which sits on remediated land developed by Kennecott. 

Kennecott is the mining mammoth that dismantled most of Lark to use the land now owned by Young as a dumping ground of “overburden” rock and soil to vigorously pursue surface mining, in the Oquirrhs overlooking the area.

Daybreak is the national poster child for planned communities. It reigns as the No. 1-selling community in Utah and the No. 12-selling community in the country. Just last month, the development added to its laurels, being named national Master Planned Community of the Year by the Pacific Coast Builders Conference, besting more than 600 other planned-community entrants for not just the overall prize, but also nabbing top honors in more than 50 categories. 

Silicon Slopes’s Betts served as the final speaker for the County’s “Growth Summit 2.0.” The week previous, it was Daybreak’s turn. Where Betts repeatedly called out Olympia Hills, with words of praise, the three Daybreak executives presenting to the County were focused on telling their story and avoided discussion of that project.

When asked, while attending metropolitan planning organization Envision Utah’s annual breakfast in late May about potentially serving as consultants to Olympia Hills, Daybreak Director of External Relations Rulon Dutson gave a tight-lipped response: “There are ways we could participate, but we aren’t in the consulting business.”

Dutson added, “As yet, a role has not developed.” 

Lark anything but a lark

Those attending recent Olympia Hills project open houses in Herriman and South Jordan used the word “propaganda” to describe the materials assembled to portray the development. It seemed possible that Young’s PR firm had even concocted the concept of Lark to pitch the development. 

However, driving around the nearly 940 acres he has purchased for Olympia Hills, the concept appears to be all Young’s. He admires the diversity of countries and cultures comprising the once-Lark, now Copperton—even if it is more socio-economically grounded. 

Young says he wants Olympia Hills to help Salt Lake County become more diverse, echoing big-city metropolitan areas he has spent a lot of time in, like Baltimore and Houston, which he perceives as being much more blended and accepting of cultural differences.

His vision is for Daybreak-like diversity of housing options, with everything from million-dollar homes to apartments. The high-end homes, though, can also include accessory-dwelling units to promote diversity versus the segmentation he says is stifling sites like Silicon Slopes and much of Salt Lake County.

While driving to the Copperton Cemetery, overlooking what would become his Olympia Hills, Young points out a gravestone commemorating the multiple cultures having contributed to the early-day mining operations. He says he regularly visits the cemetery, finding inspiration in the history of those workers who helped make Kennecott the kind of mega-corporation he wants to anchor Olympia Hills.

Observing that SWQ Mayors recognize that Olympia Hills “along with other developments” are coming, West Jordan Mayor Jim Riding echoed the theme of SWQ mayors, telling City Journals, “We are not opposed to high density, it just needs to be in the right spots.” Riding indicated the upcoming $250,000 regional study funded by the SWQ Mayors Council will help secure necessary input about infrastructure issues, including water, sewer, and what is pretty much universally deemed the biggest critique of not just Olympia Hills, but the whole SWQ landscape—transportation.

On this matter, Herriman Mayor Protempore and City Councilman Jared Henderon weighs in. “Cities must consider the effect that [developer Young’s] 'project' will have on the infrastructure,” he said. “[SWQ] cities have planned for density in the places that make sense,” he added. “If you want higher density at the edges of the infrastructure system, you simply need to build the entire infrastructure system up to support it. The problem simply is that the developers do not want to pay for it. They want to build their ‘project’ and walk away while cities are left holding the infrastructure bag of gridlock and soaring maintenance costs.”

Of those skeptical of Olympia Hills and its bold vision for diversity, Young said: “They talk about roads, they talk about water, but what they really are thinking about is not wanting low-income neighbors.”