Ben Nielson: [00:00:04] You’re listening to San Juan Now, part of the Destination Marketing Podcast Network.
Elaine Gizler: [00:00:12] This is the San Juan Now Podcast and I’m your co-host Elaine Gizler.
Ben Nielson: [00:00:17] And I’m your other co-host Ben Nielson. In this episode, we have the mayor of Bluff, Ann Leppanen. Bluff is kind of a small town here in San Juan County that offers gorgeous views and a lot of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Making it a great place to get out and explore Southeastern Utah. So we’re really excited to have you here today, Ann.
Ann Leppanen: [00:00:36] Well, thanks for having me, I’m excited to be here.
Elaine Gizler: [00:00:39] Thank you Ann and we can’t wait to hear what you have to share with us. So to get us started, how long have you been the mayor of Bluff?
Ann Leppanen: [00:00:47] I have been the mayor since September of 2018 and I was the first mayor of Bluff.
Elaine Gizler: [00:00:54] Where do you hail from? And why did you choose to reside in Bluff?
Ann Leppanen: [00:00:59] Where did I hail from? Well, the last place I lived was Saint Paul, Minnesota and I lived there for about 35 years. How we ended up in Bluff was that my husband was trying to persuade me to try backpacking and he picked Grand Gulch. He’d never been to Grand Gulch, I’d never backpacked. So we bought equipment and came down for three weeks. We started coming every year for two or three weeks to this area. One time on our way out, Mexican had endless falls, so we needed to find a place to stay. They recommended we come over to Bluff and we didn’t even know Bluff existed.
We stayed at a hotel here and the next morning decided that we were going to try to buy property. And at the time we were 25, 30 years younger and we were looking for remote, no water, no electricity. But that didn’t happen. And we ended up buying in Bluff and building and here we are.
Ben Nielson: [00:01:57] Oh, that’s great. So you said you were in Saint Paul, right? What did you do in Saint Paul? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Ann Leppanen: [00:02:05] I was a lawyer. I practiced law – from 1980 to about 1996. I was in private practice and I worked for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. As an attorney, my specialty was domestic violence and domestic violence cases and family law. In 1996 I became a child support magistrate and did federal child support cases within the state of Minnesota and then eventually became a member of Ramsey County, which is Saint Paul. Ramsey County Family Court bench and I presided over family court cases, marriage dissolutions, juvenile matters, those types of things.
Ben Nielson: [00:02:54] Wow. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing that with us and a very needed profession. So thanks for your work.
Elaine Gizler: [00:03:00] Absolutely. What a very interesting background you have that you bring to your community. Bluff is such an amazing community with residents that really add a lot of value. What role do the residents play in running and managing things that happen in your town?
Ann Leppanen: [00:03:20] Well considering that the five council members are all unpaid, we run on a total volunteer background basis with people. We enlist the community, there are communities really engaged. Prior to incorporation in 2018, the Bluff service area functioned pretty much the same way. Everyone was unpaid, volunteers. We have the Bluff Volunteer Fire Department, our EMTs are also volunteers. They, I believe get some stipend from San Juan County, they’re under the San Juan County management. We have a really strong showing of volunteers who want to teach classes and run recreational things out of the community center. So those volunteers play a huge part in keeping our recreational outdoor and indoor activities going like pickleball and skating and we’re starting meditation.
Things like our roads department, which we have our class C road money from the state that’s run by a volunteer who has donated. I don’t know how many hours he’s donated to helping us get the class C road fund transferred to us, but also done quite a bit of negotiating with San Juan County and then with the contractor to start improving our roads. Pretty much the same thing for our parks and recreation, running our buildings, it’s all-volunteer. We do have a paid manager for very little money that manages the community center and the rentals.
So when you look at Bluff, you look at how engaged the community is. And that’s including the Bluff fort who is always willing to bring in its volunteers and their heavy equipment to clear culverts and move things. They send folks to the food pantry, which is also run by a volunteer with the Utah Food Pantry or Utah Food Bank. So bluff is one happy community with 250-some different opinions, but all pulling together to create a community.
Ben Nielson: [00:05:31] That’s awesome. You answered my next question on how many residents are in bluff. So 250. How is that changing?
Ann Leppanen: [00:05:39] Well, it’s interesting because I argued with the Census Bureau about the 2020 census I think that they were low. I think that with the pandemic, they were very reluctant to spend resources to some people to do actually door to door counting. So we dropped from approximately 265 residents to somewhere in the 250, 254. And the reason that’s important is the money you get that’s attached to each person in the count. And so I argued at the state census and then I went to the federal level to argue that we probably have increased our population not decreased it, but they show a decrease.
We did a water study in 2019 the projection from the demographers was that we would probably in 20 years double. I don’t believe that will happen, but that’s what they projected for water use.
Ben Nielson: [00:06:38] So you answered my question here, how do you see the population of Bluff changing?
Ann Leppanen: [00:06:43] In terms of numbers, I don’t think it will really grow. We’ve got a limited amount of space to be able to do that in. But I think in terms of other demographics, hopefully, we will become a younger community. Right now I would guess that at least 60% of our population falls within the aging and it would be nice to be able to do things that bring younger people into the community or people who were born and raised in Bluff to come back and work. And that I think is one of the challenges that Bluff has is how do we grow the younger population, provide the ability for them to have a job from Bluff and make a living.
Elaine Gizler: [00:07:27] I know that we’re reaching out and working with a couple of key residents to talk about housing because I do believe that if we can find ways to create affordable housing or some type of housing, that will attract younger individuals to come into the community, especially remote workers. You know, you’ve got so much in Bluff, that I think anyone who would be a remote worker would want to live there just to be able to enjoy all of the outdoor amenities. So if we could figure out a way to really tackle the housing and provide more housing and that’s what I hope that our department will be able to help and working with you and the residents of Bluff to attract individuals to come in and live there and make their life there, just like you did.
So, you’ve got so many incredible landscapes and just everything around Bluff. But I know that the Dark Sky Program is very important for Bluff and I know you all have been really focused on that. So you might want to talk a little bit about that and enlighten us on it.
Ann Leppanen: [00:08:40] About a year and a half, actually longer than that, it was right about the pandemic, we passed an exterior lighting ordinance which I think was in 2019, and we extended the time for compliance to June 30th of 2022 because of the effects of the pandemic and the ability for people to be able to bring workers in to do electricity changes, to do significant changes and those kinds of things. The goal within the community, I think has been to apply for the International Dark Sky designation. Right now, we mean, the town is working with Dr. John Barentine in Tucson Arizona. He reviewed our current ordinance and we’re doing a couple of work sessions on that to look at the recommended changes to make our current ordinance more compliant with International Dark Sky requirements.
But overall, the sky is already dark enough without the ambient light requirements that we could qualify at this point for Dark Sky designation. But we’d like to see some of the larger right pollutant areas toned down before we make that actual application to get in the process.
Ben Nielson: [00:09:59] Yeah, I know that’s important to a lot of people. I was just talking to someone yesterday from out of the area about the stargazing and about the ability to see more of the stars than you would in a bigger city.
Ann Leppanen: [00:10:13] When our grandson came out from New York, he’d only read about the Milky Way. He’d never seen the Milky Way. Well, he was like super thrilled. For Christmas, we got a drawing that he did. He was six, of the Milky Way and him standing at our deck looking up at the Milky Way, which is a nice segue into saying that on October 14th of 2023, Bluff will be one of the epicenters of the total solar eclipse.
Elaine Gizler: [00:10:40] Exactly.
Ann Leppanen: [00:10:41] And we’re already starting to plan for that as a council. It’s like we need to get on it because we anticipate San Juan County is going to get flooded with people.
Elaine Gizler: [00:10:50] They will and we’re really trying to coordinate that throughout areas of the county that will experience that. So I’m glad you brought that up because we have already sort of discussed preliminary opportunities to prepare for that event. So we’re excited about that.
Ann Leppanen: [00:11:07] I think one of the things that came to my mind right away looking at the preparation of porta-potties, there’s going to be a run on porta-potties. We’re going to need to get in line for those porta-potties.
Elaine Gizler: [00:11:19] Put your reservation in now.
Ann Leppanen: [00:11:21] That’s exactly it. And some of the hotels I understand in Bluff have already had reservations made.
Elaine Gizler: [00:11:27] Yes. We have actually talked to some of the hoteliers and they’ve had inquiries from people who keep abreast of these particular happening. So we know that they’re already booking for that event.
Ann Leppanen: [00:11:43] So we’re hoping that by the time we get into 2023 our application will be pending for the Dark Sky designation. But already our hotels and restaurants talk about the dark skies and the importance of it. So well, it has been a struggle getting people to become compliant, because of the cost and the hardships that oppose. We’re not going at it punitively. We’re just going to keep working with the businesses, and with the homeowners, the UDOT Shed and Rocky Mountain Power to get us into that designated.
Elaine Gizler: [00:12:16] That’s, that’s wonderful because you’re not just mandating it, you’re actually going to partner and work with everyone in the community to make sure that it happens. And that’s exciting and it’s great that you’ve got a community the size where you can all sort of work together toward that end, and I’m excited for that. And that is certainly something that once you do have that designation, we will make sure that we let the world know that Bluff has been approved for that designation. So how exciting to have that happen.
Ben Nielson: [00:12:50] Yeah, I’m happy to hear that you’re working with the businesses on that too. So you mentioned the event coming up in about a year. Where do you see Bluff in 10 years? What is the vision of the town council?
Ann Leppanen: [00:13:03] All five of us ran on the kind of corny statement, Keep Bluff bluffing. For me, what it means is that we have growth, but we have controlled growth. We don’t have a lot of room to expand and do commercial development or big housing projects, which is why the missions, Episcopalian mission doing tiny houses are fabulous. And I’m hopeful that we’ve succeeded in bringing in workers and more families, which is, I do need to make a little political plug here.
One of the shortages in housing that I personally see is every time a house is going on the market, it’s getting sold outside. People who aren’t going to live in Bluff, who are only going to use it as a very slim second home, it’s not even being used as a second home in my mind, it’s being marketed. And we need to get people in the community thinking about what kind of long-term damage that does to a community like Bluff. So in 10 years, my hope would be when I sell my house, I sell to somebody who’s 25 or 35 moving in to work in bluff and have a business.
Elaine Gizler: [00:14:15] I agree. And I also think that Saint Christopher’s mission with the tiny homes is really going to make a very positive impact. Reverend, Joe who is out there now has a vision and I think that’s going to bring so much to the community.
Ann Leppanen: [00:14:33] One of the things that we’re going to have with the Cooperative Community Center, which was the town of Bluff purchased the old Bluff Elementary School with funding provided by Utah Diné Bikéyah and our partnership in 10 years looking forward, we’re going to see great cultural centers, activities, some post-secondary types of training like for solar. It’s a great partnership. Right now, we’re still in the baby stages, but in five years I imagine that is going to be quite a hub of San Juan County and maybe we’ll try to make Bluff the county seat.
Elaine Gizler: [00:15:06] How exciting. We love your community. I always feel, even though it’s an hour away, I feel like I’m in a totally different place and on vacation. I just love it there. I love going to Bluff. So, Ann can you tell us what are some of the events that happened in Bluff over the course of a year.
Ann Leppanen: [00:15:26] So pre-pandemic because I think that’s what we have to look back to the Bluff Balloon Festival that’s sponsored by the business owners of Bluff and they’ve kept it going. So thank you, Bob, the Hot Air Balloon Festival takes place traditionally around Martin Luther King weekend and we’ve got amazing balloonists and people coming in for that.
Then the Bluff Arts Festival is generally in October and that’s again, they stayed with it. They’ve had to downscale things, make it a lot more outdoors open rather than silent auctions inside. We have friends at Cedar Mesa who I believe they moved there, and friends of Cedar Mesa celebrate this winter. It’s usually in February or March and it’s going to be in the fall. The Bluff Fort has been now going back to having regular music events on Friday nights, and they coordinated with the town to be sure that there was no conflict with anything the town was putting on, which was greatly appreciated, and I noticed they’re doing some social activities as well.
Oh, the Fort also partnered with the town to do a 911 Breakfast, honoring people who serve the community and they also did an Easter egg hunt this year, which was great.
Elaine Gizler: [00:16:49] That’s exciting. Nice.
Ann Leppanen: [00:16:50] Yeah. So the town partnered with the Fort to do that. Although most of the organization came from Bill and Trish Spears at the Fort. So there are a lot of regular activities, and I neglected to add the Dark Skies in order to put our application in, the town has to hold certain events, not necessarily the type of event, but the number of events that focus on Dark Sky. We have two or three community members who have spearheaded that and actually held one at the Community Center a couple of years ago, done some stargazing once or twice this past year, and then of course the walk-arounds to look at the exterior lighting and give suggestions.
Elaine Gizler: [00:17:35] You’ve got so many talented people. There are artisans that live in Bluff and I’ve gone down to the arts, the event in the fall and just am amazed at the talent that local talent that you have that produced these incredible pieces of artwork, pottery, jewelry. It’s really just amazing. So, it’s nice to know that even though it’s outside. Actually, I think that adds a little bit of ambiance to the whole event out there. And you can enjoy it, walk around and meet individuals and see everything that a lot of the local artisans are creating.
So kudos to the community for continuing that event and to support that event. So even though we went through the pandemic, a lot of towns could have just said, oh, we’re not going to continue it. But you all have continued to really support these events, which I think helps to make your community very unique and welcoming.
Ann Leppanen: [00:18:45] As a note to that, because the arts festival had been traditionally run by a group of people who were aging out, that group decided that they were going to not work on the arts festival. It was just- we were just going to let it slide. The outcry from the community, and the movement, it was like immediately the younger generation just stepped right in and said, “Well no, we’re not going to cancel it or just let it go. Thank you for doing all of this hard work towards the communities that’s been doing it. But we’ll pick it up.” And they did, and there were changes that really, fit right in with the pandemic. So yes, Bluff wants to support its community activities.
Ben Nielson: [00:19:27] That’s awesome. Yeah, there are a lot of fun things happening in Bluff. So we have a question that we want to address from a user who visited our website, yoursanjuancountynow.com, this is from Marcy. She’s asking why would someone want to visit San Juan County versus any other part of Utah? Maybe Elaine and Ann, if we want to answer that.
Elaine Gizler: [00:19:54] This little corner of Utah has San Juan County is actually the largest land-based county in the state of Utah. So there is quite a bit to see with our different landscapes. More importantly, I believe that we have such a diverse population here. That adds so much to the history and the culture of this area that you don’t find in many other places. So we have a diversity of the residents of San Juan County, diversity of the landscape, I believe it’s 5.2 million acres of land within it being public land and private land majority public. There are monuments and state parks, and I just took a river trip earlier this week.
Actually, Ben, the three of us went from the office, down on the San Juan River. I had never done that. I had never been rafting. I was a little afraid, I have to say. However, I loved it so much that I ended up booking another trip that I’m coming on in a couple of weeks. But you can see so much when you’re on the river and get off the river that you can’t see in a car, that you can’t drive by. So to me, there’s a wealth of things to see and do down here in San Juan County, and I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface to let people know all that’s here.
Ann Leppanen: [00:21:29] I would agree with you. I think that every time somebody new comes to visit us, they’re like, “Well, have you seen all the sights there are to see in San Juan County?” No, I don’t think anybody in San Juan County has seen all the archaeological sites or all of the state parks, and monuments and even things like in Bluff, we have a small park next to the UDOT shed. The last two or three years with the park workers that are volunteering to make it irrigated and beautiful, we have people that are picnicking almost every day. And people just say this is an amazing landscape. You’re not going to see it anywhere else.
Elaine Gizler: [00:22:06] That’s right. And I encourage people to come and explore the eastern side of Utah, Southern Utah in the four corners area we have Monument Valley. It’s just every time I’m out, I never tire of looking at what we have here in San Juan County. The people, the landscapes, and just being out there in the outdoors. One key element is we don’t have the number of visitors. You’re not going to find where you are right next to another individual. You will be spaced out, there’s room. You have solitude in some of these areas that you visit, very quiet and you can enjoy what you find there.
So it’s great for families, for mature adults that want to spend some time outdoors, hiking or backpacking or rafting. There’s quite a bit to do.
Ben Nielson: [00:23:11] Yeah. You can go from red rock to pine trees in 10 minutes.
Ann Leppanen: [00:23:16] That’s right.
Elaine Gizler: [00:23:17] It’s amazing. So we’ve mentioned this in previous episodes, but we finally implemented the new program where you can send a voice message, asking a question or leaving a message for us. The program is now live and you can find it on our website, yoursanjuancountynow.com. So just look for the button that says speak with us and it will let you record, asking us a question. We really, we would be very excited to hear from you and all that you have to say, what subjects you’d like us to have for additional episodes, and we appreciate you listening to our podcasts.
Ben Nielson: [00:23:58] Thank you Ann for coming on. It’s been a real pleasure chatting with you today.
Ann Leppanen: [00:24:02] Well thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to promote Bluff.
Elaine Gizler: [00:24:05] We’re happy you’re here and we have to really thank you for moving here because you’re really making a difference. You and the community banding together to improve actually San Juan County because you’re a critical element to everything that happens here. For all those listening, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d love to hear from all of you.
Ben Nielson: [00:24:34] Thanks for listening to San Juan Now. We hope you enjoyed the episode today and can’t wait for next time.
Elaine Gizler: [00:24:40] Our team at the Economic Development Department and Visitor Services Office are grateful to all of you for joining us. Please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @utahscanyoncountry to stay up to date on what’s happening in San Juan County and we look forward to talking to you next time.
Ben Nielson: [00:24:57] Thanks for listening to San Juan now part of the destination marketing podcast network hosted by Elaine Gizler and Ben Nielson and produced by Relic.
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