Popular Liberty Park fountain can be reopened for much less than $2M quoted by Salt Lake City, artist’s son says
By Matthew Piper | The Salt Lake Tribune
A popular Liberty Park fountain that closed this summer due to health concerns can be brought up to code and reopened for far less than the $2 million quoted by Salt Lake City staff, according to the son of the Seven Canyons Fountain artist Stephen Goldsmith.
After months digging through documents and talking to interested parties, Sam Goldsmith presented his conclusions at Wednesday night’s Liberty Wells Community Council meeting to loud applause from area residents and the surprise of Parks and Public Lands Director Kristin Riker.
“A solution exists to preserve and restore the fountain,” said Goldsmith, among the thousands who once splashed and climbed around the 30,000-square-foot feature while learning — if they so chose — about the seven canyons and creeks that feed the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake. “It doesn’t have to be demolished and redone. It would be a real tragedy.”
The fountain opened in May 1993 with the partial financial backing of philanthropist and fountain enthusiast Obert Clark Tanner, at a total cost of $500,000. Goldsmith said it can be brought up to code for $200,000 to $300,000, rather than the $2 million overhaul proposed by the lone contractor Riker had sought guidance from.
That May estimate from CEM Aquatics followed a damning March inspection from the Salt Lake County Health Department in which the fountain was found to be “an imminent health hazard” that “poses an immediate drowning and entrapment hazard.”
Although the county’s water quality supervisor, Rick Ledbetter, acknowledged then that the health code gives leeway to older water features that were built in compliance, he wrote that such leeway doesn’t apply when they are deemed “dangerous, unsafe, unsanitary or a threat or menace to life, health or property.”
Nobody has ever drowned at Seven Canyons, and the county has no record of waterborne illnesses being contracted at the fountain, but in 2007 it was one of four city water features shut down amid a statewide outbreak of diarrhea-causing cryptosporidium, or “crypto.” In 2000, city officials closed the fountain for two years because of high concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria.
Teresa Gray, the county’s bureau manager for water quality and hazardous waste, said Thursday that the fountain essentially operates as a before-its-time splash pad for those who walk through the grooved creeks or wade into the Great Salt Lake feature — where some of its youngest explorers have worn diapers or nothing at all.
Such features with “a low amount of water and a high circulation of people have a high probability of being able to spread disease,” Gray said.
Leaves from overgrown plants and mud also clog the fountain’s pumps and filters, and it had to be closed weekly for maintenance. Riker said at Wednesday night’s meeting that when she began to work for the city two years ago, she thought, “Oh, jeez, there’s a lot wrong with this fountain.”
The contractor piled on. Ledbetter hadn’t noted this in his inspection, but CEM Aquatics’ Tim Garner wrote that the rocks were too tall and too jagged and “would need to be torn out and redone” to meet code.
Garner presented the city with two options. For $800,000 to $900,000, it could drain the water features east of the main sidewalk and rebuild everything to the west. For $1.85 million to $2 million, it could redesign and rebuild the entire fountain — “a fresh and unique twist on the water features, while maintaining the integrity and intent of the original.”
Days later, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski wrote to O.C. Tanner President and CEO Dave Petersen for help. The Tanner and Delores Dore Eccles foundations had chipped in for a $150,000 filtration system that allowed the fountain to reopen in 2002.
“Would the Foundation consider donating the funds required to bring the Seven Canyons Fountain back to its original beauty and upgrade it to meet current safety standards?” Biskupski wrote, without mentioning that it would be completely redesigned at that price.
Replied Petersen in an email that Riker later forwarded to Sam Goldsmith: “I am sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to fund a $2 million make-over. Foundations [sic] require maintenance like anything else — but I was surprised to see such a large estimate.”
Seven Canyons began as a clay model in the studio of sculptor Stephen Goldsmith, and Riker had asked for his input earlier in 2017. Goldsmith, who also founded Artspace and was Salt Lake City’s planning director under former Mayor Rocky Anderson, said he was “shocked” that even then Riker was talking about monies more than three times what it cost to build the fountain.
The younger Goldsmith began researching the topic in June. He wasn’t persuaded that the sharp rocks need to go or that resurfacing near the water’s edge is necessitated by code, though he agreed that the Great Salt Lake should be more shallow, that it requires a new filtration system and additional landscaping.
He enlisted EDA Architects to provide an alternate estimate that met those conditions, and armed with that $200,000 to $300,000 range, wrote a staff-requested memo.
But Goldsmith said communication broke down after that. Nobody told Riker about his memo and when he heard that she planned to speak at a community council meeting, he decided to direct some political theater.
Goldsmith also invited EDA’s Greg Brooks to speak, as well as Anderson, who announced to applause that “No is not an acceptable answer here, and $2 million sure as hell isn’t an acceptable answer.”
Craig Silverstein, who bought Liberty Park’s concession stands about six years ago and said he’s upgraded the Ferris wheel, restored the swing ride and plans to restore the carousel, said his business was down 33 percent in July and August — which he attributes partly to the spread of homeless pushed out by the Operation Rio Grande law enforcement effort but mostly to the fountain closure.
Only Brita Manzo, who lives near the park and has two children, spoke in favor of a rebuild.
“Having been one of those moms who won‘t let their kids jump on the rocks and in fact won’t even let them in the water because it’s disgusting, I actually would love something new, and I’m fine with $2 million,” she said. I think we should be spending a decent amount of money and bring back business into the park.“
Goldsmith said after meeting with unnamed nonprofits Thursday that his part in the fountain restoration is done, “because I can‘t do any more work on it.”
“I have a job,” he said. “This is not what I signed up for. I wanted to write a fundraising letter, but because of what I discovered, I felt compelled to do this as a citizen of Salt Lake City. I am not asking the city to do it my way, I’m asking the city to do what the community wants.”
Riker, for her part, said Wednesday night that she still had yet to receive an alternate proposal from a builder, but that she would gladly consider a viable lower-cost option.
Notably absent Wednesday night was the elder Goldsmith — who said he preferred not to steal the spotlight even though he felt like Tanner, who died the same year as the fountain’s opening, would have opposed tearing out a piece of public art and replacing it with something designed solely for recreational use, “like this is Lagoon.”
In fact, Stephen Goldsmith said, he never asked his son to become involved. It came as a surprise when he received an email from him this summer, he said, asking if he had time to talk.
Whether or not the original Seven Canyons fountain is turned on again, Sam Goldsmith managed to get some water flowing: His dad was moved to tears.