As the flames grew taller and dark smoke billowed into the clearing evening, a gathering crowd of onlookers stood by, seemingly unconcerned.
Even the dozen or so firefighters on the scene were mostly standing and watching. They took turns training a firehose on nearby power poles and soaking the ground around the burning house, occasionally circling the structure to make sure the blaze was contained, but did nothing to stop the destruction of the building itself – which is exactly how they were supposed to handle the situation.
Firefighters from Tremonton, Garland and other local departments converged last Thursday to burn three houses located in the 500 West block of Main Street to clear the way for commercial development. The spectacle was part of an agreement between Tremonton City and a local real estate developer to expand the downtown business district as the city continues to grow.
The homes were located in the Tremont Center Community Development Area, a partnership between the city and Tremont Center LLC, a private group headed by local real estate developer Micah Capener.
Established in 2014, Tremont Center is a mixed-use development covering nearly 40 acres and incorporating elements of commercial and office space, retail and restaurant businesses, residential housing and public open space.
Under the agreement, Tremont Center LLC is handling the development and in return, the company gets to keep some of the tax revenue generated by businesses located in the project area. Once that agreement expires, the tax revenue will revert to city coffers.
The houses removed last week were owned by the Tremonton Redevelopment Agency, which will now transfer ownership of the parcels to Tremont Center LLC under the terms of the community development agreement.
The work is related to a plan for the extension of 600 West, which the city recently realigned to make a straight shot heading from Main Street to the southern boundary of the city at 1000 South. Plans call for extending 600 West on the north side of Main as well, with commercial buildings on both corners. Part of the work will involve paving over a portion of the canal that runs parallel to Main Street through the area.
Tremonton City Manager Shawn Warnke said the intersection has been pegged for a future traffic light, which will be installed when the Utah Department of Transportation determines it is justified based on vehicle traffic volume.
While acknowledging the risk of pledging future tax revenue to reimburse a developer when there’s no guarantee that the project will succeed, Warnke said it makes more sense for the city to facilitate commercial development by extending the road through the property than to leave it as single-family residential housing.
“From an RDA perspective, we want that area to be successful and have good traffic circulation,” he said. “It’s part of having a clear vision of a commercial project in a commercial area.”
Warnke said the city is paying about $30,000 to burn the houses and hire a contractor to haul away the charred rubble. He said razing the buildings without burning them first would have cost roughly twice that amount due to added labor costs.
While development plans are the main reason for removing the houses, the job also provided valuable training for local firefighters, especially during a time when it’s difficult for them to conduct training activities because of social distancing precautions.
Tributes have been pouring in through social media over the last several days for a Box Elder County man whose impact reached far and wide in the local theater community, school system, and beyond.
Allen Dee Pace, known to friends and family as Dee, is officially the first person from Box Elder County and the tri-county Bear River health district to succumb to COVID-19. He passed away last Saturday after battling the illness for weeks.
Pace, 68, is from Willard. He and his wife, Nedra, had been serving a mission in Detroit, Michigan for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he became ill in mid-March, according to a statement from the church. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early April and had been under the care of his wife and daughter in another state in recent weeks.
“We express our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Elder Pace as they mourn his passing, and we continue to pray for all who are impacted by this pandemic,” church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said in the statement.
Pace’s daughter, Mickey Larson, wrote on Facebook that he had been in an intensive care unit for three weeks, “and fought valiantly.”
Larson wrote that the family will be holding a celebration of his life after the regulations surrounding COVID-19 are lifted.
“His family was virtually present and sang to him as he passed,” she wrote. “Know we are sending you all a virtual hug and we wish so badly we could all be together to celebrate him.”
In a press release issued Sunday announcing the first COVID-19-related death in its district, which covers Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties, the Bear River Health Department did not identify Pace, but stated that “the individual … had underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe disease and complication from COVID-19.”
Lloyd Berentzen, executive director of the Bear River Health Department, expressed condolences in the department’s press release.
“While we wish we didn’t have to report any deaths, we hope this is the last death that we have to report in our district,” Berentzen said.
Pace, a native of Spanish Fork, was highly influential in his career as an educator in Box Elder County. A graduate of the University of Utah, he was a former theater teacher and administrator at Bear River and Box Elder High Schools, and served as principal of the now-closed Honeyville Elementary.
Within hours of the news of his passing, his Facebook page was inundated with messages and nostalgic photos from those whose lives he touched as an actor, director, mentor and friend.
“I know how formative he and the Pace family were, and still are, with who I am,” wrote Carly Schaub, a niece of Pace’s from Cache Valley. “He was sinisterly funny with a biting wit, and probably the most talented performer I’ve known.”
Emma Murphy wrote that she had the pleasure of working with him on several theater productions.
“You’re eternal, Mr. Pace. You will stay with all of us whose hearts you touched through your teaching, endless love, and kindness,” she wrote. “I’m honored to have been mistaken for one of your children on more occasions than I could ever count.”
A post from the Bear River High School Kindness page stated that Pace “will always be remembered for his devotion and the love he showed to his students.”
Sean Knuth-Bishop, who knew Pace through his work in musical theater, encouraged everyone to “remember how Dee lived with an unfathomable depth of joy.”
Knuth-Bishop started an email address, DeePaceMemorial@gmail.com, as a gathering place for all to contribute photos, videos and other memories of Pace.
“Since we can’t gather right now, let’s rally together and use the technology we have to spread the message far and wide to everyone who loved this precious gift of a guy,” he wrote.
Last week’s announcement that classes at public schools throughout Utah are canceled for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year has left local education officials looking for a creative solution to honor this year’s graduating class.
Steve Carlsen, superintendent of the Box Elder School District, said that means formal, in-person graduation ceremonies have also been canceled for the district’s three high schools.
While some school districts are taking the lead in organizing virtual ceremonies online or making other contingency plans to recognize this year’s seniors, Carlsen on Monday said the Box Elder district is leaving it up to each individual school.
“There’s a lot of discussion, a lot of ideas out there,” he said. “We are planning on, if possible, to do something in July or August, some sort of formal graduation.”
Of course, that depends on how the situation surrounding the new coronavirus and COVID-19 progresses. If restrictions regarding group gatherings linger on into late summer, an in-person ceremony will likely not be possible.
“If we get past August and kids are going on to college, that would obviously be too far,” Carlsen said.
Bear River High was planning to have its graduation ceremony at the Spectrum on the campus of Utah State University again this year. Such ceremonies are generally held indoors, but Carlsen said an outdoor venue might be a more practical option.
“The problem is, both auditoriums (at Bear River and Box Elder highs) are too small to house everybody,” he said. “It might be a football-field thing.”
Meanwhile, students are continuing to complete their coursework at home. Bear River High remains open from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on weekdays, and students can come to the school to pick up course materials and use the library during reduced hours.
Carlsen said schools in the district have made some adjustments to their curriculums along the way to account for learning environments that look vastly different from what students are used to.
“I know we’ve pulled back from what we started with on what is the right amount (of homework) to send home for each student,” he said.
Students in high school typically have six classes per day, each lasting a full hour, but “six hours on the computer is too much,” Carlsen said. “We’ve asked our teachers to be a little more fine tuned,” such as finding videos for students to watch in place of filling out worksheets in some cases.
“It’s hard on everybody, just like everywhere else in the country,” he said. “It’s easier for teachers to teach in the classrooms.”
Utah joined more than 20 other states last week in canceling classes at public schools for the rest of the school year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Utah joined states such as Arizona, Oregon and Washington that had previously made the same decision.
“In order for us to continue to slow the spread and to get back on our feet socially and economically this is not the time to have our schools back open,” Gov. Gary Herbert said in announcing the closure on April 14. “This is not an easy decision to make. It is disruptive and it impacts our children, parents and families.”
Public schools have been closed since March 16.
About 667,000 students in grades K-12 go to public schools in Utah, according to state figures.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.