A state commission has recommended property west of Salt Lake City International Airport for a new prison, but city leaders have vowed to fight the decision.
The Prison Relocation Commission last week picked the site, near Interstate 80 and 7200 West, from among four options as the state seeks to close the existing Draper prison site, which would then be redeveloped.
The matter now moves to a special legislative session to consider the recommendation. If the site is approved, the Utah Department of Facilities and Construction Management would negotiate for and acquire the site, oversee the prison design and build the facility.
The commission voted for the Salt Lake City location after hearing from an economic development official who warned that development at the three other sites could be stifled by having a new prison in those communities. The motion by the commission’s co-chairman, Sen. Jerry W. Stevenson, R-Layton, was approved unanimously.
The other sites considered are Grantsville in Tooele County and Eagle Mountain and Fairfield, both in Utah County.
Before the vote, the commission’s other co-chairman, House Majority Assistant Whip Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, called the decision “very difficult” and noted opposition existed from Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and others.
“But we have to do what’s in the long-term best interests of the state of Utah, and I believe, given what we have heard today, both from a short-term and a long-term cost perspective, Sen. Stevenson’s motion is the appropriate one, and I think that it will be a double-win for the state,” Wilson said.
He added that he would work with Salt Lake City “to make sure that this is something that has as little impact on them as possible in a negative way.”
Becker and City Councilman James Rogers issued a statement after the vote, saying they were “troubled” by the decision and that it occurred “despite the vocal and constant opposition from our community and information Salt Lake City has provided that this site is unsuitable for this use.”
“Salt Lake City will continue to fight today’s decision, and we look forward to working together with Salt Lake City’s legislators to pursue all options to prevent the prison being built. This state prison would be a new, additional burden, removing taxable property and potentially adding costs,” the statement said.
Not counting an expected $550 million to build the prison, an economic analysis of the sites indicated that while Salt Lake City’s location would have $154 million in upfront costs — much of it for site preparation on land near the Great Salt Lake — operational costs over the prison’s first 50 years would total about $423 million. By contrast, the Grantsville site would have $135 million in upfront costs and $676 million in long-term operating costs, Eagle Mountain would have about $90 million in upfront costs and $737 million in operating costs, and Fairfield would have $100 million in upfront costs and $757 million in operating costs.
The Salt Lake City site has “tricky and challenging” soil subsurface conditions, making it “a challenge” to build there, consultants told the commission. But it also offers better access to courts and medical facilities and for staffers, volunteers, vendors and visitors than the other sites.
Robert J. Nardi, senior vice president of the Louis Berger Group, said each site has its own challenges. The ones at the Salt Lake City site are pretty common for a project “of this nature and scale. … There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with the appropriate amount of time, energy and resources,” he said.
Also factoring into the decision was the potential for additional economic development with the prison relocation. The analysis indicated that it was “high” for Salt Lake City, “moderate” for Grantsville and Eagle Mountain, and “low” for Fairfield.
Jeff Edwards, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, which helps bring companies to Utah and expand existing ones, said the prison could bring economic benefits to any of the sites.
“However, in the case of the rural sites, a new prison may also create a greater economic risk to some of those communities nearby. … Now, some businesses may not be concerned with being located next to a prison — and there are plenty of examples of how that’s worked in other parts of the country — but, on the other hand, there are others that may be so concerned about this that they would not consider relocating nearby, which would frankly put these communities at a disadvantage in their ability to attract new businesses,” he said.
Some of the non-Salt Lake City sites have other plans for their properties that are incompatible with prison use. In contrast, the Salt Lake City site is near existing industrial development and is part of the city’s master plan for industrial development, he said.
After the vote, Lane Beattie, president and chief executive officer of the Salt Lake Chamber, issued a statement calling for the legislature to “thoughtfully consider and support” the commission’s recommendation.
“This is a complex issue. Today’s recommendation is the culmination of a thoughtful and methodical process including dozens of studies and countless hours by those involved,” Beattie said.
A consulting firm, MGT of America Inc., has indicated that at least 500 acres are needed for a new prison, which is expected to take three years to build. Despite some calls for the new facility to be on the Draper site, the legislature has rejected that idea. Commissioners have described it as old, antiquated, unsafe and expensive to operate. It opened in 1951 and has about 100 buildings. MGT has estimated that while a new prison would cost $550 million, maintaining and improving the existing one would cost $578 million over 20 years.
The Draper prison has about 4,000 inmates and 800 employees. The state prison system has about 7,000 inmates. Other than the inmates in Draper, there are some at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, a facility that will be expanded over the next decade or so, and about one-fourth are in county jails.
Both Edwards and Beattie spoke enthusiastically about the economic development potential at the Draper site, in the middle of the “Silicon Slopes” high-tech center. A study has indicated that after full build-out, the site would generate $1.8 billion annually in economic output, create more than 18,000 jobs, and generate $94.6 million in annual state and local tax revenues.
Edwards likened the opportunity to one 40 years earlier, when the University of Utah was granted land where Research Park is today.
“And that has been, of course, the home to new companies and research that have created a remarkable economic impact on our state for the last 40 years in terms of high-paying jobs and companies that are there,” he said. “I think if the Draper site is done properly, it would have even greater impact, given its proximity to the explosive growth in tech companies that’s happening in the southern part of Salt Lake County and the northern part of Utah County.”
Beattie said that “if done wisely, there is substantial opportunity for our state’s economy in the redevelopment of the current Draper location. Every Utahn has an interest in the future of this property. As a business community, we will actively engage to ensure this generational opportunity is not squandered.”