St. George Boulevard wants to reclaim its place as the beating heart of downtown
St. George Boulevard is the namesake main drag that cuts through this southern Utah city. Some remember it as the old highway through town, others as a spring break destination. Now, people want to revitalize it.
Leaning on a street pole at the intersection of the boulevard and Main Street is Dan McArthur. Cars rush by and people walk to nearby businesses. He’s trying to stand in the shade because it’s summertime, midday and already hot. McArthur is a welder and former city council member and spent 20 years as mayor –– about as St. George as it gets.
“I was born and raised here, my dad was born and raised here, my grandpa, my great grandfather,” he trailed on. “I've been here my whole life … I already bought my cemetery plot, so I'll be here forever.”
Just over two miles long, the street stretches from I-15 to Bluff Street, another important corridor in town. It’s situated below tall red bluffs at the north end of the city. Along the road, neon signs advertise for the few old motels that remain, while fencing and construction signal new soda shops and restaurants coming in.
St. George Boulevard is also known as 100 North thanks to Brigham Young’s street planning. Another nod to Young is the street is wide enough to turn a wagon. Now, it just means the boulevard can accommodate several car lanes.
McArthur’s welding business is right off the boulevard. One of his first jobs was at a gas station on the same road, which until the 1970s was called Highway 91. Growing up, he said it was a popular spot to hang out.
“When I was in high school, we called it drag main, and we just go back and forth,” he said. “We’d turn around and go back and we'd eye the girls and we do the Chinese fire drill. This is the only stoplight right here. We'd stop and all trade places and run.”
By the time he was mayor in 1994, more youth were flocking to the boulevard from across the country. A 2005 Deseret News article touted that MTV had named it one of the top three hotspots for spring break.
“They would be out for spring break and they all congregated right here,” McArthur said. “The first year I was mayor, we almost had a riot because there's just so many here.”
There would be a couple of hundred arrests each year during spring break, mostly for substances and curfew violations. High schoolers and college students would gather bumper to bumper and McArthur said they’d call in additional resources just to keep traffic moving.
Macrae Heppler remembers hearing all the wild stories. By the 2000s, when he was a kid it was different, and he said the party culture had died out. He’d mostly go there to grab dessert at local haunts like Frostop. Now he’s in his early 30s and owns Eagle Gate Title, another business on the boulevard. He works on new real estate deals in the area and posts frequent updates on YouTube of “what’s happening in southern Utah.”
“During the recession and post-recession, there wasn’t a lot of commercial development in St. George in general,” Heppler said. “I feel like there just wasn't much change on the boulevard.”
Right now, the City of St. George is working on a general 20-year plan. For the first time, the city is focusing on the downtown area, which includes the boulevard. As part of the plan, they’ve identified what they call “character areas” that they hope will preserve their history, while also helping the city grow.
Nan Groves Anderson, who recently served as the director of the Main Street Program in the governor’s office, said it’s important for a community to have uniqueness and to preserve its historic places.
“If you don't have a healthy heart of your downtown, you probably don't have a healthy town,” she said. “So in the case of a place like St. George, I think there's tremendous opportunity to utilize this framework … to focus on what St. George wants its historic district to look like.”
One of the most popular spots downtown is Ancestor Square. A mix of old and new buildings with a pioneer feel house upscale restaurants, businesses and a yoga studio.
St. George Boulevard, and downtown in general, is becoming a place people can hang out and spend most of their time, said Heppler. He points out the new apartments, plentiful food options and even the incoming 24-7 indoor pickleball court.
“I think just more of that, more new concepts, fun concepts, a little bit of variety is continuing to come,” Heppler said.
Instead of cruising down the boulevard in cars, Heppler wants to see it become a more pedestrian-friendly place, and McArthur agrees.
“When we were kids, you walked along here and they all had glass fronts and they'd have a showcase in their window. There's a few of them [that] still do, but that's what I'd like to see people be able to walk,” McArthur said standing at the intersection. “Here today, I'm seeing more people walk down here than used to.”
He said he hopes to see people use the space and gather more — just maybe not all during spring break.