A decade ago, Helper, Utah, was basically considered a ghost town. The town’s Main Street was filled with beautiful, but run-down, empty buildings. Its mining town days were long gone, and its last remaining mine was dormant since 2012 due to safety violations and debt.
Also gone are its days of being known for its locomotives that “helped” trains over the nearby summit — where Helper got its name — as trains now carry enough power to do it on their own.
Today, however, when you walk down Main Street Helper, you see stunning revived buildings full of artist shops, restaurants, bars, and consignment stores. At night, buildings along the entire street glow with facade lights, and people walk the streets.
Kylee Howell, who started Friar Tuck’s Barber Shop in Salt Lake and moved back to their home county two years ago with her wife, says the town has a new, living vibe.
“Living in Helper and being part of the growth feels like there is this… hum of new opportunity,” Howell said. “At the same time, being there feels exactly like being welcomed home. There’s something so comforting in honoring the place that raised me.”
I spoke with Mayor Lenise Peterman about the town, its vibe, and its welcoming people.
What first brought you to Utah, and then what brought you to Helper? I relocated to Salt Lake City with a small litigation support company in 2004. Litigation support is a high-stress, time-consuming industry, and I was interested in a change of pace. Kate Kilpatrick (my wife), who has always had her heart set on a career as an artist, stumbled on Helper at a workshop and basically came back to Salt Lake, indicating this was the place. She relocated to Helper in 2012, and I followed in 2015 in a semi-retired capacity.
What was Helper like when you first moved there? In 2015, Helper was still struggling. Many of the buildings were vacant and run down on Main Street. But the bones were good, and it was easy to see the potential in the historic Main Street.
The changes have been rapid, when I look back at where we started and how far we have come. The community really rallied around the concept of sustainability and the understanding we needed to diversify our economy, take care of our assets, and replenish our human capital.
Revitalization, I would point out, started with the water and sewer project in 2013 and was completed in 2016. That infrastructure project gave life to new public spaces and beautification efforts you see today.
Main Street was designed by and for the citizens who built it over the course of 9 weekends, and they have real pride and ownership in it. It comes down to great people motivated to keep Helper viable. They are tough, dedicated, and have a huge amount of pride in their community.
What drove you to run for mayor? Initially, I worked as a volunteer co-chairing the Helper Arts Festival and a Helper Revitalization committee. Serving in these roles introduced me to the community, and delivering results earned their trust. In 2017, I secured a grant on behalf of the city — the Sustainable Design Assessment Team grant supported by the American Institute of Architecture based out of Washington, DC. This grant was a hard look at our challenges and how we could rally together to address them.
Community participation was off the charts — people cared and shared their ideas and visions of what Helper could be. We then received a blueprint of actions we could take to improve. I did not want to see a plan shelved and not exercised, so this prompted me to run for office. I spoke with family and friends, and one in particular (shout out to Mrs. Mike O’Shea!), who all agreed that being mayor was the right role to pursue to make these ideas a reality. I was elected by a landslide and am currently serving a second term, in which I ran unopposed.
Tell me about the people of Helper. The people of Helper continue to be our best asset. They are genuine, kind, and welcoming. But don’t think they don’t have grit. They have seen industries boom and bust and still get up every day for that next battle. They are strong-willed, tolerant, and want Helper to be everything it can be.
Most importantly, and the biggest gift of all, is they have hope for our future, and with hope, nothing is off the table. I remember being asked when designing Main Street, people were terribly concerned about “how much money” did we have to make it happen. My response was, why not dream it and then let money determine if any compromise was necessary? And that’s the Main Street you see today.
How did the first Pride event in the town come about, and what was the reaction? Helper Vibes hosted the first Pride event a few years ago. As a small, rural community without much of a budget, we are not really capable of hosting events. In fact, the various events Helper proudly reflects include numerous ones such as First Friday, the Helper Arts, Music & Film Festival, and Christmas Town, which are owned by community organizations and citizens. The same holds true for Helper Vibes.
Helper is the lucky recipient of dedicated people who love our town and understand events are a fun way to come together and celebrate. As is true of any town, there are people who are not supportive of the Pride theme, but in the true nature of tolerance, which runs deep in Helper, they do not have to participate as they see fit. The majority of the town, however, supports and celebrates all of the different community members and has no issue with Pride, or any of the other themes event sponsors select.
While we were there for Helper Vibes’ Pride event, we couldn’t miss people’s positivity and pride in their downtown. It is all about our community. We have wonderful people who are committed to building a space for everyone. The Main Street you see is all about adhering to our cultural identity and past while directing our future. I think it is important to be an authentic place that is grounded in who the community is and to be proud of our industrial past as a mining and railroad hub.
Over the years, we have achieved what is known as “positive proximity.” That means together we can be and do more than any of us can achieve individually. We respect our differences and capitalize on them to get the best results in our efforts.
Helper’s future is bright, but there is still work to be done. Infrastructure needs such as updating the electric grid, road maintenance, park upgrades, river restoration work, and more are on the horizon as we continue to focus on sustainability.
From the outside, it appears the fact you have a wife has little impact on what the town thinks of you. How is it living in a town of just over 2,000 people? I find it refreshing, in that I can be who I am and serve all of our citizens to the best of my ability. I would point out I am also the first woman mayor of Helper and have secured broad community support from those who understand my approach is inclusionary, regardless of race, gender, orientation, age, or any other attributes people come to the table with.
Kate has done a ton for the community and has earned their respect on her own as a local area artist and active volunteer across a variety of community activities.
I think when people see and know you, labels fall away, and they see you — your attributes and qualities. And the trust we have earned through our actions has made Helper our home — a safe space to create, to grow, and to give back to so others may enjoy it as well.
I am honored to lead such a community and bound to my ethics and integrity to ensure we honor its past, work hard to improve its present, and focus on its future.
Find out more about Helper Saturday Vibes at helpervibes.com