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What's Next For Short Creek?

KJZZ reporter Sarah Ventre interviews Donia Jessop.
(Photo by Jackie Hai - KJZZ)
KJZZ reporter Sarah Ventre interviews Donia Jessop.

We’ve heard KJZZ’s Sarah Ventre report on the community in Short Creekover the last several weeks. She joined The Show to talk about her reporting.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: You’ve reported on a number of changes in Short Creek. What’s next for the community?

SARAH VENTRE: Well, if you remember the first story in this series was about this very significant mayoral and city council election in Hildale, on the Utah side of the community. That election wound up being historic, and for the first time ever, three of the city councilors who were elected are non-FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). The mayor-elect is also ex-FLDS, and is a woman. She will be the first woman to be mayor of either Colorado City or Hildale. They will take office on Jan. 8.

I had heard rumors from some that if any non-FLDS candidates were elected, the FLDS who are in office would leave their posts. I should be clear — I asked the current mayor of Hildale about that. He is FLDS, and he said he hadn’t heard that at all. It’s really just a rumor, and so far there’s no reason to believe that transition won’t be smooth. But watching how the council members interact with one another will be interesting. FLDS church members are not supposed to speak to those who have left or were kicked out of the church — and starting in January, there will be a council made up of both, so there could definitely be some tension.

GOLDSTEIN: What about changes that are coming besides the new mayor and City Council?

VENTRE: Well, there’s been a lot of change related to housing. Basically at one time the land was communal and owned by the financial arm of the church. Now the land is being subdivided and people have the opportunity to own their own home and parcel of land. This makes a huge difference for lots of things. For example, if you lived on a large piece of land with three other people, and two of them weren’t paying their taxes, that whole piece of land is affected. But if the area is subdivided into smaller parcels, you’re only responsible for yourself.

So the land was subdivided in Hildale first, and then, just in the last couple months, was divided for Colorado City. And this — like lots of things in the community — is even further complicated by religion. FLDS members have been evicted from their homes because they refuse to pay an occupancy fee to live in the houses. When this happens, it means there are fewer FLDS people in the community, which of course affects demographics, elections, politics — many, many things. And even just within the last hour, Lyle Jeffs, who was the bishop of the community, was sentenced to almost five years in the food stamp fraud case and escaping from confinement.

GOLDSTEIN: What about — on a more day-to-day level — are there things that people in the community want to see change?

VENTRE: There are some serious infrastructure issues that need to be looked at. There is a part of the community that doesn’t have safe drinking water. There are some people who think the streets are in need of repair.

And then people also have a lot of aspirations for ways to improve things economically going forward. Industry in Short Creek is very limited, and a number of people told me that they want to take advantage of its location — which is not too far from a lot of southern Utah’s parks and the Grand Canyon. There’s a sense that there is an opportunity for tourism around those outdoor spaces. And also there are some that think the towns could capitalize on the unique history of the area, and draw in tourists who may not otherwise come up that way.

And I should clarify, too, that the people who are telling me these things are all not FLDS.

GOLDSTEIN: And before we let you go, you’ve spent a fair amount of time in Short Creek. It’s a place that people have a lot of ideas about, but not many people go and visit. What was the biggest surprise to you about the community?

VENTRE: Honestly, it’s how open so many people were. I am embarrassed to say now that I was pretty nervous the first couple times I went up there. I had no idea what to expect. Really, I found a small town, with admittedly a very specific history. But generally a small town where people were much more open to talk with me and share their stories than I expected. There are definitely still reminders all around that the town is home to the FLDS church. There are still buildings with high walls around them and really big houses — but there are also little restaurants and coffee shops, and kids walking to and from school, and exactly the kinds of things you’d expect in any rural community.

GOLDSTEIN: That’s KJZZ’s Sarah Ventre. You can hear all the stories in her series “Short Creek: Beyond FLDS,” as well as see photos and hear voices from around the community by visiting shortcreek.kjzz.org.

Sarah Ventre produces KJZZ’s two-hour daily program, The Show. Prior to working at KJZZ, she was a producer and editor at NPR headquarters in Washington for a number of shows, desks, podcasts and the national newscast. Her reporting ranges from understanding the relationship between faith, culture, and community among those who have left the FLDS church, to political implications of world music showcases at SXSW. Ventre’s work has been featured on Weekend Edition, Weekend All Things Considered, and on member station WAMU. Ventre also freelances for the Phoenix New Times, Bitch magazine, and several other publications. Ventre grew up in the Valley and is a founder of the nonprofit organization Girls Rock! Phoenix, which puts on a rock ’n’ roll camp for girls, trans, and gender nonconforming youths every summer. She also participates in live storytelling events, and occasionally performance art. Ventre holds a degree in anthropology from Arizona State University. She is always up for a good laugh or a great chile relleno, and is happy to have returned to her hometown to tell stories within her community.