Think back to who you were in the fall 2017: pre-pandemic, pre-cultural shifts. That year seems like a different world. This is when Emily Niehaus ran for election as the mayor of Moab, a position that had been held by Dave Sakrison for 16 years. This is when Emily Niehaus, founder of the affordable housing nonprofit Community Rebuilds, won.
Now, at the end of her first four-year term, Niehaus isn’t running for re-election. She’ll be replaced by Joette Langianese in January 2022.
“This was an intense term,” she said, joking that we can count pandemic years like we count dog years—one COVID year feels like the equivalent of seven regular years. “It feels like it’s been a lot longer than four years.”
Niehaus initially ran because she loves being of service, she said. “Housing has been, and continues to be, really the issue of our time. We have a web of issues, but housing certainly sits at the heart of many of those issues. And that’s what compelled me to run.”
Under her leadership, the city undertook large projects such as the 2019 hotel moratorium, the widening of highway-191, the purchase of Walnut Lane, the UTV noise ordinance, and the plastic bag ban. It grappled with balancing tourism growth with local quality of life.
“When you start to try to answer the question of, ‘what do you want Moab life to look like?’ You’re going to get more conflict than you’ll get resolved, but that’s okay,” Niehaus said. “This past four years has been, for me, seeing locals try to grapple with ‘what do we want Moab to look like for tomorrow?’ And I’m happy to say I served in that transition period.”
Moab Sun: What are you most proud of in the four years that you were mayor?
Emily Niehaus: I’m most proud of the relationship we were able to rebuild with the state legislature. I’m most proud of businesses in Moab, and service worker employees, doing what I would call the most amazing hustle I’ve ever seen. We closed and we fretted and, I mean, I certainly didn’t sleep well. I don’t know anyone that slept well in 2020. I don’t want to just talk about the pandemic response Moab had because there were so many other things that happened during my term, but ultimately the greatest achievement of my term was not mine. It was the city’s. It was everyone in the valley, how we stepped up to recover from a closure.
I really do want Moab to know how proud I am. This was such a hard four years for the people who work in Moab, especially our service workers—the people who wake up early to serve breakfast, the people who stay up late to serve drinks, the people who are forced to make tough decisions about childcare so that they can participate in our community. I’m so proud of Moab for getting through this pandemic.
Good things grow from darkness, like babies and like plants. I’m excited to see Moab bloom next year.
MS: How do you think your priorities changed throughout your term?
EN: My priorities never changed. Affordable housing, infrastructure, development, and economic diversification were and continue to be my top three priorities throughout my term.
MS: You worked with three different city managers during your term and saw many other city positions turn over. What would you suggest to future city employees to create an environment where people stay for the long term?
EN: It’s very easy to make a judgment regarding staffing, for any organization. The reality is that Moab is a hard place to live. We see in our valley a lot of turnover, all the time. It’s a bummer reality that we see that turnover, especially in higher-level positions. I think we all sort of had a mid-life or mid-COVID crisis. For staff, I would say, make sure working at the city is the right fit for you. Make sure you get your basic needs met as a local. We are so blessed to live in a beautiful place, with a lot of scrappy, amazing humans. If it’s the right fit, you’ll thrive. And if it’s not the right fit, you’ll bounce.
But we do have this housing crux that we’ve got to continue to work hard on—we have to recognize that the preservation of our existing affordable housing is the number one priority, and that we cannot lose any more housing.
MS: Do you think you’ll continue your relationships with state representatives?
EN: It’s important for Joette to feel empowered to be in there, and to have that voice. So I’m going to support that. And I am going to assist her when asked, to move forward with the needs of our city. But when you change jobs, sometimes you stay in touch with coworkers, sometimes you don’t. For me, I definitely plan on staying in touch, especially with the cohort of female mayors that I was so honored to serve alongside. A lot of us ran and won four years ago, and when a lot of them ran again and I told them I wasn’t running, they were really sad—but I plan on maintaining those friendships, with what I would call my coworkers.
MS: What’s your best piece of advice for Joette?
EN: I’m not really one to give the ‘do it’ advice. I’m more like, ‘I’m here when you need me.’ And she has deep knowledge of local government, for having served on the county council, her experience running a nonprofit, her experience developing the MAPS project. Our mayor-elect has an incredible knowledge base, and so I don’t know that I have advice. I think what I have is my commitment to service. So I’m there if she needs me.
MS: Will you become involved with local government again?
EN: People get involved for two reasons. Either they’re called to serve by somebody in the community or by a higher power, or they see something that’s broken and they want to fix it. I am the former. If somebody asks me to step up and help with something, absolutely. But I’ve looked under the rugs, I’ve checked the corners of the closets, and I’ve done what I was able to do over the last four years, to fix those things that I saw that needed fixing. And now there’ll be new leadership and new council members, so that’s going to be their role. I’m not looking for problems. But I’m happy to continue to serve as requested.
MS: What are your plans for the future? Do you see your future in Moab?
EN: I love living in Moab. I love the people that call Moab their home. I have such a deep love and respect for anyone that’s willing to work hard to live in a rural and remote community. It’s a big deal. And sometimes it only works for someone for a couple of years, and sometimes it’s a handful of years, and sometimes you move to Moab, you just think it’s a great place, and you just become a lifer. I would put myself in that last category.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.