'It's been a good ride': Outgoing Washington City mayor reflects on 12 years of service – St George News

WASHINGTON CITY — When Ken Neilson became the mayor of Washington City 12 years ago, he came in with the goal of learning the names of every Washington City resident he could.
“I made it a goal to get to know every resident of Washington City – didn’t even get close – but I’ve got about 10,000 people whose names I know,” Neilson said as he spoke with St. George News at the Washington City Offices Monday. “Its not a bad goal, but there’s 32 or 33,000 people now. I’m probably not going to get there, but that was one of my goals, to get to know the names of people in Washington City”
Neilson was elected to office in 2010 when Washington City had around half the population is does now. Like neighboring St. George and Washington County overall, his own city has seen tremendous growth and change over the last decade.
“The city was experiencing good growth, but nothing like under the tenure of Mayor Neilson,” former Washington City Manager Roger Carter said during a farewell party for Neilson the city held Dec. 20. “Mayor Neilson clearly was the one who guided that growth and its all grown so well.”
Neilson’s time as mayor is coming to an end with the close of his third term at the end of the year. He had hoped to secure a fourth term, but was defeated in the recent municipal election by City Councilman Kress Staheli in the city’s mayoral race.
“Twelve years is a long time in politics, even in small town politics,” Neilson said. “It’s been a good ride.”
Neilson grew up in Washington City, though higher education and a job with a large transportation company took his young family out of state for a few years before a round of company layoffs brought them back to the city in the mid-90s. Since then he’s been employed with two different construction supply companies as one of their salesmen.
It is a job the outgoing mayor said he thoroughly enjoys as it allows him to meet new people and interact with them on a face-to-face basis. This trait carried over into his time as the mayor.
“As the mayor, I enjoyed being face-to-face with our residents, with out staff, with other mayors, even senators and congressmen – all sorts of people,” Neilson said.
How it started
As for what got Neilson into city politics? It was former Washington City Mayor Terrill Clove who convinced him to serve on the city’s planning commission. He was on the commission for six years before resigning to dedicate time to serve as a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Later on, Clove would approach Neilson again with an invitation to city serve, but this time by running for mayor.
“I put my hat in the ring, and lo and behold, here I am, the mayor,” Neilson said with a grin.
For much of Neilson’s time in office, Carter served as the city manager and shared his thoughts on Neilson’s time as mayor coming to an end.
“It’s always hard to see a time come to an end, but you can look back on his legacy, on his 12 years as mayor here, and look at what has become of this city when he started,” Neilson said. “It was a privilege of mine to serve with him. We’re grateful for all he has done. He can look back on what he as done and take great personal pride in that, as he should.”
Philosophy on running the city, working with others
“It’s been my philosophy that if you teach correct principles and let them (city staff) govern themselves, and they did that,” Neilson said.
In matters of running the city, Neilson has been rather hands off, and let the city manager and staff do as they needed to get various jobs done with guidance from the mayor and City Council as needed.
“Our department heads and staff, I’d stack them up against anybody in the world,” he said. “They are tremendous individuals who care about our city and how it looks. I was honored to be associated with them.”
Among those on the city payroll is Washington City Police Chief Jason Williams who said he’s known the mayor for 20 years and expressed gratitude for his support of the city’s first responders.
“He’s been a huge supporter of the police department and has a huge love and heart for the citizens of Washington City,” Williams said. “I’ve known him to be a great man.”
In relation to working with others, such as neighboring mayors and so on, Neilson said he’s always tried to find ways they can work together and collaborate.
When he first became mayor, Neilson said there was a rift between Washington City and St. George, so he went to Mayor Dan McArthur with an olive branch. He wanted to make sure both cities worked together and in harmony as much of what they did was interconnected.
Neilson repeated this when Jon Pike became the next mayor.
“(When) I become mayor of St. George, he immediately came to me and said, ‘How can we work together?’” former St. George Mayor Jon Pike said. “We had that kind of relationship for the seven years I was in (as mayor).”
Pike said he considers Neilson a close friend, and mentioned how they would go to Habit Burger in St. George once a month to talk about what was happening in their respective cities, how they might help each and just talk over lunch.
“A ‘habit’ we called it,” Pike said. “We would, as they say, break bread together and use that as an opportunity to coordinate a little bit informally.”
Highlights of the last 12 years
Much has happened in Washington City during the 12 years Neilson sat in the mayor’s seat. From the new parks the city has built, to the rebuilding of Main Street and the explosion of commercial development around Exit 13, Neilson listed these as some of the endeavors he was happy to be a part of as mayor.
Neilson was pleased with the development of the Sullivan Soccer Park, which he called a tremendous asset for the city. Other parks he spoke of included the Canyon Park, Shooting Star Park and a personal favorite for him, the Boilers Park.
“In my youth that was our swimming hole,” he said. “I think that is a good legacy to leave.”
The rebuilding and beatification of Main Street was another milestone, he said. That street had to be redesigned and rebuilt in order to mitigate repeated flooding that had impacted the area in 2018 and years prior.
“Now its a wonderful, nice street to go up and down on. I’m very proud of that,” Neilson said.
Spurring commercial growth in the city has been a longstanding goal for Neilson as well, and he is pleased with the development that has taken place around the Exit 13 – Washington Parkway interchange in recent years.
Neilson recalled a time when he and the city manager would attend trade shows in Las Vegas in attempts to sell Washington City as a destination for commercial development. He summed up those early attempts ending with companies saying, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Despite the lack of interest from developers at the time, a Maverik gas station was eventually planted on the east side of of the highway interchange, followed by the Black Bear Diner in 2017. Since then, both residential and commercial development at and around Exit 13 and Washington Parkway has exploded. Another gas station, a Best Western hotel, a couple of RV parks and other businesses have sprung up in the area. The Sienna Hills Auto Mall is also slated to break ground there soon, and a new hospital from Steward Health Care is set to be built on the west side of the interstate.
“What’s been interesting to see is that Exit 13 begin to catch fire,” Neilson said, adding that companies were now calling the city each week to see if they could get a spot at Exit 13. “Its been fun to see that evolve,” he said.
Other notable events that have transpired during Neilson’s tenure include the connection of Washington City and St. George through the Mall Bridge Drive, the building of the new police station and Suntran public transit expanding into the city.
A lifetime of golf and fond memories
The city held a farewell party for Neilson on Dec. 20 at the Washington City Community Center. During that time, he was presented with two gifts. One was a something of a joke between staff and the outgoing mayor, while the other left him speechless.
City Manager Jeremy Redd present Neilson with a clock to mark his time as the mayor, which Neilson joked later on he hadn’t wanted. This was followed up by the City Council presenting him with a lifetime pass to the Green Springs Golf Course.
“We wanted to do something we felt would be significant for you,” Mayor-elect Staheli said. “We thought it would be appropriate for us to give little something back that recognizes the mark, and I’m not talking about just divots, that you’ve made on this community.”
Once handed the golf pass, Nielson was initially speechless. He went on to exchange hugs with the City Council members before voicing his response.
“It’s been a wonderful 12 years,” he said. “It’s been an honor for me to get to know all of you and work with you and to serve with you and these great councilmen. They’ve been wonderful friends and they done a wonderful job and will continue to do a wonderful job.”
Neilson also congratulated Staheli as the mayor-elect and pledged his support for him.
“I think Kress will do a wonderful job,” he said.
Later on, as Neilson sat with St. George News in a conference room at the city offices, he summed up what he’ll remember the most about his 12 years as the mayor of Washington City.
“I think my fondest memories are of the people that I was able to meet,” Neilson said.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.
Mori Kessler serves as a Senior Reporter for St. George News, having previously contributed as a writer and Interim Editor in 2011-12, and an assistant editor from 2012 to mid-2014. He began writing news as a freelancer in 2009 for Today in Dixie, and joined the writing staff of St. George News in mid-2010. He enjoys photography and won an award for photojournalism from the Society of Professional Journalists for a 2018 photo of a bee inspector removing ferals bees from a Washington City home. He is also a shameless nerd and has a bad sense of direction.
Would you like to have the day’s news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!
Would you like to have the day’s news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!