Glittering in the night, the town twinkles from afar like some Lilliputian version of Las Vegas.
But Vegas it is not - by any stretch of the imagination. A more solid bastion of conservatism and social restraint would be hard to find.Country-western swing at an alcohol-free dance hall is as wild as it gets on Saturday night in St. George. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outnumber non-Mormons 2-to-1 in Washington County. Democrats almost never get elected to public office. There is but one hard-liquor bar in the town of 33,000, and the last truly sensational crime was the murder two years ago of a convenience-store clerk.
To find racier ambience, one must travel a half hour southwest to Mesquite, Nev., where the freewheeling casinos are light-years from St. George. Las Vegas is two hours away by car.
But the proximity to Nevada is not the reason people move to St. George.
"We get our needs filled both morally and culturally right here," said Ed Knight, who is not a member of the predominant religion but moved his small family from California to open a St. George party-supply store earlier this year.
"We see it as a strong place for the family, a place with a good work ethic," said Knight. "A lot of the country has lost that."
St. George does seem a place out of time.
"I have a thousand-dollar cellular out there in my truck, and it's not locked," said Ron Reber, a young executive with SkyWest Airlines, which is based in St. George.
Reber, who travels frequently on company business, said the town makes up in other areas for what it lacks in nightlife.
"When I get back home from a trip, I breathe a sign of relief," he said. "This is a wonderful respite from the world out there."
The National Institute of Health, a fitness spa housed in a cluster of geodesic domes on the edge of a lava flow outside town, is world-famous. Catering to out-of-shape clients, the center a few days ago was booked to its 126-member capacity, the spillover staying in motels downtown.
"We can't even begin to get the number of people in who want to come," said Marc Sorenson, an exercise physiologist who founded the institute on a shoestring 10 years ago. Written up recently in The New York Times as one of the country's best spa deals, the institute's rates start at $569 for a week's exercise, meals and shared lodging.
Tired of urban California, retired jeweler Daryl Schach and wife, Marjorie, moved to Oregon. Dismayed by the rain, they migrated to Arizona. Sapped by the heat, they looked north, and by midsummer they will have moved into a custom-built house in a subdivision rising from what used to be an alfalfa field on the east side of St. George.
There's no pollution in St. George. No crime to speak of. Not an unbearable amount of traffic yet. And it's cheaper than anyplace they've lived before.
"We have more left over at the end of the month," said Marjorie Schach.
The Schach's neighbors are from the Midwest, the East Coast, California and towns like Layton and Bountiful along the Wasatch Front. They are among the thousands of new arrivals who have made Washington County in the past few years the fastest-growing part of Utah.
SueAnn Evans, a recent newcomer with her family from the Salt Lake suburb of Centerville, said groceries are a little more expensive in St. George and that housing is much more costly. She, her husband and their children live in a $600-per-month condominium a quarter the size of the home they kept in Centerville for $700.
But Evans said it's easier in St. George to get kids involved in extracurricular activities because it's cheaper. Soccer-team fees were $40 per child in Centerville; in St. George they are $12.
She said planning an adult evening on the town can be a challenge, however.
"If you want to eat out and go to the movies, you eat first," she said. "By the time the movie's over, the restaurants are closed."
City Councilwoman Mona Givens says there's plenty to do. The great outdoors beckons from all points of the compass, and there are nine golf courses, she noted. The city is home to the Southwest Symphony. The Dixie Center, with a 1,200-seat auditorium and 5,000-seat arena, is substantial enough to have drawn the likes of Roy Clark and Willie Nelson.
"Everbody thought it was too big when they built it," she said. "Now it's not big enough."
Ken Bringhurst, the 32-year-old president and co-founder of Stata Inc., a local five-year-old software company, said St. George's warm and arid climate makes it vastly superior to the Salt Lake area.
"I've lived through one of those winter inversions up there."
Bringhurst, whose company has become phenomenally successful with considerable patronage in Japan, said he also likes the pace of life in St. George. None of the 26 employees at Strata Inc. wears a necktie to the office, where T-shirt-and-bluejeans ensembles are the attire of choice.
Ivan Szu, owner of St. George's newest Chinese restaurant, left Palm Springs, Calif., eight months ago for southern Utah despite warnings that he might not fit in: "People told us Mormon communities are very closed, but we found differently."
"The rat race, the garbage, the smog, the crime" is what Richard Walker, city editor of the Daily Spectrum, abandoned when he moved from the Bay Area of California.
"My house payment here is what my rent payment there was," said Walker.
Walker, who is not LDS, said he and his family had no trouble finding the church of their choice in St. George, where there are 12 other denominations, five of which are in the process of erecting new buildings.
Tomorrow: The price of prosperity