Drive down Centennial Parkway in Sandy and you feel like you're in an eerie kind of inverted ghost town-- a town that hasn't happened yet.

Beckoning street lamps line the parkway. At night, they almost hide the stark fields beyond. City Hall and a courts complex, spanking new and majestic, stand on one end of the street as if the punch line to a joke, a government center with no city to govern amid an infrastructure with nothing to facilitate.At the other end, the South Towne Mall seems worlds away, its energetic traffic spilling onto 10600 South and I-15, never infringing on the peace of the parkway.

All this will change someday. Count on it. Centennial Parkway is one of hte most visionary projects any city in Utah has undertaken. Someday, it will be Sandy's downtown, a satellite hub to rival Bellevue, Wash., or Scottsdale, Ariz., and the center of the south end of Salt Lake County.

The seeds already are there. Novell has an office building in the area, and the steel skeleton of an Aetna Insurance building is rising halfway between City Hall and the mall. Byron Jorgenson, Sandy's city manager, said all the empty space will disappear within three years.

Yet none of it would have happened if a city councilwoman hadn't gotten a last-minute gut feeling in 1986.

The scene was a late-night council meeting in October inside the old school that served as a City Hall. All of Sandy's meetings in those days went late while city officials munched on dried fruit rolls and kept a running bet on how long I, as the reporter assigned to cover the gathering, would last. Usually, I set midnight as my limit. But most of the time, perhaps not by accident, the good stuff was saved for the end. On this night, the council was deciding whether to buy the 30 acres where City Hall now sits.

Sandy, having grown from 6,438 souls in 1970 to roughly 70,000 in 1986, was in the rare position of having vacant farmland right next to the freeway- a perfect site for a new downtown. Not since the pioneers had anyone in Utah been able to methodically plan a downtown with a population already in place. The city's original downtown, a one-square-mile jumble of old buildings, long ago had been hemmed in and made useless by surrounding development.

But the plans probably wouldn't have gotten far without the city buying that land. The council was deadlocked, 3-3, over the purchase, which was to cost roughly $55,000 an acre. The argument centered over whether to commit to the site for a new City Hall. An agonizing hour of debate went by. I was about to leave, when suddenly one of the most adamant opponents, Councilwoman Vonda Fairbanks, had a sudden change of heart -her gut feeling.

"When it came right down to it, something inside me said that's the place," she said at the time.

The mayor in those days, Steve Newton, had no doubt. He considered Williamsburg, Va., as the perfect model for a downtown, and he saw the opportunity to replicate most of its elements in Sandy. Those elements included government, education and retail centers at various corners and everything else in between. City Hall was to be the anchor to the north, the mall the anchor to the south.

He had hoped to get a community college in the area, but the city has had to settle for a new Jordan High School, instead.

To Newton, it was more than just a good idea. He would tell me how he could almost see Brigham Young, were he alive today, standing in downtown Salt Lake City and pointing southward, directing that a new downtown be built 100 blocks away. It all made perfect sense, a sort of symmetry for the growing valley.

Newton is an attorney for Sinclair Oil now, out of office before the dream could come true. He likes what he sees happening in the new downtown. The government buildings, the planned businesses, all will communicate "that this is a community. that it's more than just a suburb," he said.

His only word of caution is for the city to avoid a cluster of high-rises, such as in Bellevue, Wash. Newton visited that city a few years ago and learned firsthand what tall buildings can do to traffic.

"I talked to their traffic engineer. The guy said this was a bad time to talk because he was working on a building moratorium and the city's traffic was at a standstill."

Whether Sandy's downtown ends up in gridlock remains to be seen. For now, Sandy residents can be glad its government took the time to plan a city center nearly a decade ago. Otherwise, the vacant land probably would have disappeared into a jumble of subdivisions and apartment buildings-- more of the anonymous urban mass that commuters pass each day without a second thought.