A seemingly anodyne decision about billboard verbiage erupted into a proxy conflict on the state of Moab’s tourism industry and noise pollution during the Grand County Commission’s Tuesday meeting.

Image courtesy of Grand County

Commissioners were presented with two options to revamp the county’s billboards north and south of town: a sign emblazoned with “Welcome to Moab,” with a smaller message below reading “Please slow down in town;” and a similar design dominated by “Please keep your speed down” with smaller text below reading “While driving through town.”

While the commission eventually opted for a compromise — voting 6-1 for verbiage reading “Please keep your speed down while enjoying our town,” with Commissioner Bill Winfield in opposition — it followed hefty disagreement over how much Moab ought to welcome visitors versus combat excessive vehicle noise.

“I think we are not doing enough to make visitors aware that this isn’t just Disneyland; people live here,” said Commission Vice Chair Kevin Walker, the strongest proponent of the larger “Slow down” message.

Walker said the commission had approved plenty of other advertising that solely promotes Moab as a destination.

“If you imagine that the billboard is the only thing anyone’s ever going to see about Moab, then of course maybe we’d want to put the welcome message first,” Walker said. “But it’s not the only thing; [there is] all this other messaging.”

Winfield said he found it “almost offensive” that the county feels the need to educate visitors on their in-town behavior, saying anti-noise-pollution messaging is best left to law enforcement.

“I don’t think that a billboard is the answer to slowing people down in town,” he said. “I believe that we need to welcome them, let them know we appreciate them while they’re here and allow law enforcement to do their job.”

Commission Chair Jacques Hadler said he liked both messages and asked about putting one message on each billboard.

The conversation evolved into a broader discussion on Moab’s visitation, with commissioners at odds about what kind of message would best serve the interests of both locals and visitors.

For Walker and Commissioner Mary McGann, reducing noise pollution will benefit not only residents but Moab’s visitation, as they said increasing noise levels are dissuading some visitors from returning. McGann said she asked some of her own out-of-town visitors about the signage this weekend.

“Even the people from out of town consistently chose the ones that said, ‘Please slow down when going through town,’” McGann said. “They said, ‘You already have welcome signs; we don’t need another welcome sign.’”

Walker agreed, arguing that by comparing data over the last decade, Moab had already succeeded at upping its visitation.

“If the goal is to increase visitation, we’re succeeding,” he said. “But if you look at resident satisfaction with tourism … we’re not succeeding there.”

Winfield, however, called such messaging “a waste of taxpayer dollars.” He said law enforcement ought to seek additional funding for signage quelling the use of jake brakes, “which are the biggest complaints that we’ve been receiving lately on noise, far more than the UTVs.”

Commissioner Evan Clapper disagreed, calling the billboards a good way to use tax dollars and saying they didn’t target off-highway vehicles. He said Grand County has jacked its tax rates to fund things like the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, with the flip side being that the body is now mandated by state code to spend millions annually on tourism marketing.

“Rather than spending more and more marketing in Switzerland and Ireland and all these places to get people to town, we can spend a small portion to advertise so that people are enjoying it in a respectful way,” Clapper said.

Just before the billboard item, the commission had approved spending about $15,000 on advertising in various European countries. Due to the shuttering of its economic development program, the county must also now spend hundreds of thousands, or even millions, more dollars annually on tourism marketing than it has since 2021.

Clapper said he found local billboards a good way to promote county-approved messaging.

“I don’t necessarily want to create more billboards in town … but if they’re here and we have the lease on the billboard, I think that this is a nice use of taxpayer monies,” he said.