PROVO -- Wednesday was the first day Mayor Lewis Billings allowed someone to utter the word "Ironton" in his presence.
City economic development director Leland Gamette mentioned the southeast section of town in an administrative meeting without the mayor saying "no" and moving onto another subject. Controversy surrounding Billings' former ownership of land in that area has swirled since he took office 18 months ago.Critics lambasted him for selling his personal real estate to the city while he served as mayor, even though the deal was agreed upon in principle long before he was elected. To avoid even the hint of a conflict of interest, Billings refused to participate in any meeting regarding Ironton.
He wouldn't even discuss it privately with city attorneys or Gamette.
So while lawyers and City Council members wrangled over details of the sale, Billings kept quiet.
But now that the city has taken ownership of 139 acres and has a pledge from Billings to donate another 10 acres, Gamette wants him to speak up on how to develop the largest piece of vacant land in Provo.
"I feel strongly that it's in the best interest of the city if the mayor is involved in the development process," Gamette said, adding the prestige of the office is critical to wooing prospective developers. The council agreed and approved a resolution Tuesday essentially lifting Billings' self-imposed gag order.
Although Councilwoman Shari Holweg, one of the mayor's harshest critics on the Ironton issue, initially questioned the need for a resolution, she voted in favor of it.
"Is it basically to say it's OK with all of us and all the cards are on the table?" she said.
The affirmative vote gives Billings the opportunity as mayor to do something with a chunk of ground he was not able to do as a private businessman.
"I think I need to be involved," he said. "It really is an important piece of property."
City officials envision professional offices, light manufacturing and possibly a minor league baseball stadium on the site.
Before development begins, U.S. Steel must finish removing contaminated remnants of its abandoned mill. The multimillion-dollar clean-up project is expected to be done in the next few weeks.
As part of an agreement with the Pittsburgh-based steel giant, Provo will reimburse the company for clean-up costs using revenue from the business center.
Billings bought the Ironton property years ago with plans to build a technology park as a private enterprise. The deal never materialized so Billings decided to sell the city an option on the land.
Provo exercised its option last year, putting the newly elected mayor in an awkward position. Billings set up a blind trust in which proceeds from the $447,000 sale ($3,000 per acre) will stay until he leaves office. He has no control over the trust.
Billings also pledged to donate 10 acres to Provo. Billings intended to sell the sliver for as much as $55,000 per acre to a third party until the council objected. The city will take possession of that land in January.