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Sentiment aside, smokestacks should come down

SHARE Sentiment aside, smokestacks should come down

Family legend has it that my great-grandfather once worked at one of the two old Murray smokestacks off 5300 South and I-15. He was earning money to bring the rest of his family to Utah from Norway.

I'm skeptical about that. The dates don't match up. The oldest of the two stacks was built in 1902, and he would have done his sweaty, grimy labor about 20 years earlier than that. But he did work in Murray (there were eight smelters in town around the turn of the century), and the stacks do remind me of the sacrifices he made to bring me a better life - sacrifices that are getting harder to imagine each day in this world of air-conditioned comfort, convenience and affluence.Still, I say tear them down.

Murray voters will get to make that decision in Tuesday's primary election. One item on the ballot is a proposed general-obligation bond of up to $3.4 million. The money would go toward renovating and shoring up the stacks, removing the hazardous materials (arsenic and lead are believed to be embedded in the bricks), and installing cables and epoxy fiber-wrap strips to keep the stacks from tumbling in an earthquake.

Even at that, the shorter stack probably won't make it. Inspectors haven't been able to adequately test it because they worry it is too unstable. Most likely, it would have to be chopped off to a height that is considered safe.

The bond, by the way, would add $16.89 to the yearly tax bill of someone owning a $100,000 house and considerably more than that for those who live in homes of greater value - which includes most of the city. But then, how can you put a value on a 450-foot-tall polluter?

Truth is, if the bond passes, the stacks will become monuments to taxpayer lunacy, which may be a different type of legacy than the one intended. This is one of the more ridiculous proposals to come along in awhile.

The smokestacks are indeed landmarks in Murray. Their presence tells of a different era in the city and hearkens back to those who built it. But strip away the nostalgia, and you're left with two old chimneys, nothing more.

Taxpayer funds shouldn't be spent on such things. The stacks have no practical value. They are not architectural jewels, as was the Salt Lake City-County Building. They are remarkable only in that they are tall and they are still standing.

Yet they are tearing apart neighborhoods and friendships in Murray. Everyone seems to have an emotional opinion about their fate. Few things are as hard for a small town, even one in the middle of a large metropolitan area, than watching a landmark come down.

That's why everyone in Murray needs to take a deep breath, step back and look at this without emotion. Perhaps the best place to start is with the speculation over what practical uses the stacks could have. Already, they are being used for police antennae, which is fine. But future plans include possibly renting them out for commercial use or for advertising.

Advertising? Consider these two words: giant billboard. Now ask yourself how this would help teach lessons to the kids, other than that pollution comes in forms other than dirty air.

The city could get a little more creative, I suppose. How about following the footsteps of the trendy rock-climbing centers and forming a rappelling health club? Giant mattresses could be stacked at the bottom to catch those who haven't quite gotten the hang of things yet. Or how about starting a restaurant? The name Godzilla's Barbecue comes to mind.

The fact is, if there were a commercial use for the stacks, someone with private money would be doing it already.

A no vote would put the fate of the smokestacks in the hands of private developers who have plans for a large medical facility, retail center and movie-theater complex. Chances are, they would bring the things down.

Physical reminders are indeed important. Cities ought to look for meaningful ways to preserve history. But, as is too often the case, preservation projects are driven by crises, not by careful management. Murray city has enough to handle being in the center of a growing metropolitan area. It doesn't need to take on the headache and liability of owning and maintaining two smokestacks.

Great-Granddad labored tirelessly to forge a better life in a new land. He was industrious, and from what I've heard he was a practical kind of guy. My guess is, were he around today, he wouldn't want the government taking some of his hard-earned money to keep two old useless smokestacks standing. The many working families in Murray families who are struggling through life in the 1990s ought to feel the same.