SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Prison in Draper should be moved to Salt Lake City, members of the Legislature’s Prison Relocation Commission decided in a unanimous vote Tuesday.
“This is a very difficult decision,” said House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, the commission’s co-chairman. “But we have to do what’s in the long-term best interests of the state of Utah.”
Wilson, a Republican from Kaysville, said relocating the aging prison not only means a new $550 million, 4,000-bed facility, but also money to help pay for it from developing the Point of the Mountain site, “a double win” for the state.
The recommendation now goes to lawmakers for a final decision. Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to call a special session of the Legislature as soon as the next interim day, Aug. 19, to vote the site up or down.
The governor did not comment Tuesday on the commission’s choice of the Salt Lake site west of Salt Lake City International Airport over sites in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County, and Grantsville in Tooele County.
But Herbert said he will “carefully evaluate” the commission’s recommendations and that the “primary focus in reforming our corrections system must be public safety and reducing recidivism among offenders.”
The Salt Lake site had been seen as the leading choice since a last-minute decision by the 2015 Legislature gave city leaders the ability to raise sales taxes if the move was made.
While Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and other city leaders have continued to oppose putting the prison in the state capital, including raising the possibility of a lawsuit, community reaction there has been limited compared with the other sites.
At open houses held by the commission in Grantsville and Eagle Mountain over the summer, panelists fielding questions submitted by residents faced raucous crowds who had rallied earlier against moving the prison.
There were no such outbursts at a similar event in Salt Lake City. Soon after, a state lawmaker, Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, said his own informal survey showed the “political will of the Legislature” was to move the prison to Salt Lake.
Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, whose district includes the new site, said the commission’s selection process has excluded the people who will be affected by the move.
“Are we really doing our jobs as representatives when we ignore the complains and needs of those in our communities? The west side has not been silent. I have not been silent,” Hollins said. “I will not be silent.”
A recent technical analysis by the state’s consultants of the four sites pointed to Eagle Mountain as the cheapest and easiest to develop, while Salt Lake City was the most costly because of wetlands in the area.
But long term, the operating costs are expected to be less at the Salt Lake site because of its proximity to employees, volunteers, courts and hospitals, and lower utility expenses.
A chart presented about two hours into Tuesday’s meeting spelled out those differences in dollars, putting a $577 million price tag on the capital and operating costs for the Salt Lake City site and $825 million for the Eagle Mountain site.
The commission heard for the first time what it is expected to cost the state to buy the land at each site. For Salt Lake City, the price is $30 million; Grantsville, $20 million; Eagle Mountain, $10 million; and Fairfield, $5 million.
There was also discussion about the high price tag for preparing the Salt Lake site, estimated at $97 million to $132 million, a result of spongy soil that must be squeezed dry by piling on a heavy fill material over 18 months.
“I’m not going to shy away from the fact it’s going to be a challenge,” consultant Bob Nardi told the commission, warning the cost could be even more but the work could be done without causing an “undue delay.”
Still, commission members ended up looking at the bottom line.
The commission’s other co-chairman, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said the numbers represent the “true cost of ownership” for a new prison for taxpayers, making the choice clear.
Economic development potential around a new prison was also a factor.
Jeff Edwards, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, said building a prison on one of three areas he called rural could put those communities at a disadvantage when competing for new business.
But built on the Salt Lake site, Edwards said, the prison would become part of an already developed industrial area of the city. The new infrastructure would help attract additional businesses, he said.
Opponents of the move, including a few Republican lawmakers, have pushed hard for state leaders to consider rebuilding the prison on the nearly 700-acre Point of the Mountain site, something the commission initially ruled out.
Even the GOP governor, who recently took a four-hour tour of the site, has said the best location should be chosen for a new state prison, even if that means it stays put.
The commission finally had the consultants take a brief look at what it would take to build at the Draper site and determined it would be more expensive and raise safety issues.
The economic development potential of the current prison site, located along Utah’s so-called Silicon Slopes high-technology corridor, has helped drive the move from the beginning.
Initially, the consultants determined fully developing the property could have a $1.8 billion economic impact. Later, legislative staff said that could be much lower or much higher, depending on what’s built.
“Every Utahn has an interest in the future of this property,” Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Lane Beattie said in a statement, calling development on the Draper site “a substantial opportunity for our state’s economy” if it is done wisely.
Without the promise of new tax revenues from development on the Draper site, one member of the commission, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said there would be no interest in funding a new prison.
Hutchings said if lawmakers hadn’t looked for a new location, the prison “would never had been built. We would have Band-Aided one broken piece of concrete and one bent pipe and one busted outlet for years and years and years.”
Members of Keep It In Draper, a group opposed to moving the prison, vowed to continue their efforts which include a request to the Utah Supreme Court that they be allowed to circulate a referendum to repeal funding for the move.
“It’s definitely not over,” said Eagle Mountain resident Stephanie Gricius, a founder of the group. “It was great for the sites not selected, but at the same time, it still screws over the taxpayers. We’ll keep fighting it.”
Jewel Allen, of Grantsville, said while it was disappointing not to see Draper on the list of potential sites, she appreciated the commission’s choice.
“I’m grateful Grantsville was not picked,” Allen said. “Today we’re going to enjoy the moment.”
Acting Fairfield Mayor Peter Lawrence said he felt “10 feet tall” after the vote.
“Enough said,” Lawrence said. “We hope Fairfield and Eagle Mountain are done with this and move on.”
Once the governor calls a special session, lawmakers are limited to voting for or against the Salt Lake City site. Stevenson said he believes support for the move is “pretty firm.”
Commission member Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said she would like to see the state come together over the decision.
“My hope is this is not used as a political ball. This is not the atmosphere this needs to be in,” Mayne said. “This is the best for Utah.”
Contributing: Mike Anderson for KSL.com