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Photographic Solutions
A recent aerial view of the Utah State Prison shows how the land surrounding it has changed over the past 50 years since it was built.

DRAPER — Eight months ago, the thought of moving the state prison from its familiar Point of the Mountain site was just a campaign pledge.

But now Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. wants to make good on that promise by examining the economics of building an estimated $300 million facility at a new location. The prison has been at its current site since 1951.

In a request for proposals released earlier this month, state officials began the search for a consultant to study the feasibility of relocating the Utah State Prison. That study — which alone will run the state about $140,000 — will include a look at all the costs associated with building a new prison, including demolition, construction, staffing and the impact on inmates.

A large chunk of the study will also look at how much money could flow to the state from selling the roughly 750 acres of south valley land — a figure pegged at about $325 million by Draper city estimates.

But Tammy Kikuchi, spokeswoman for the governor's office, said Huntsman is cautious and will not let those high land values tantalize him just yet. For now, Kikuchi said, the governor is not considering the prison real estate for any specific developments until the feasibility study is complete in December.

"He's just sitting back and waiting for the study," she said. "He doesn't want to put the cart before the horse at this time."

At his monthly news conference earlier this month, Huntsman said the decision will be primarily based on whether the decision to move the prison will benefit taxpayers.

"And if we find that the answer is no, I'm going to be less enthused about this as a possibility," he said.

And the Department of Corrections doesn't appear enthused even at this point. Department spokesman Jack Ford said corrections officials are "100 percent behind the feasibility study," but they predict it may not be cost effective in the end to uproot the prison and build from the ground up elsewhere.

Still, talk of moving the prison has south Salt Lake County city planners and developers buzzing about how the large swath of land in one of the fastest growing areas of the state could be used should the prison leave.

Costly improvements

One of the major factors the study will consider is that even if the prison is moved, the final transfer could be 10 to 15 years away. And as that time rolls forward, the state will continue to pump big bucks into repairs and improvements at the Draper prison.

Utah's prison is relatively young, with most of the buildings on the site built during the 1980s and 1990s and the oldest building dating back 50 years. But the wear-and-tear on the structures requires constant upkeep and updates, even if the prison could be torn down in the next several years.

For the upcoming fiscal year, improvements totaling nearly $2.2 million are planned, Ford said. These include perimeter fencing, upgrades for two control rooms, reroofing the infirmary and paving at the Promontory facility.

In the future, the sagging kitchen floor at Wasatch will need replacing — a project that could cost $5 million, though the department may deal with kitchen needs by contracting with the private sector.

Two months ago, the state completed a $1.3 million improvement on the prison's Promontory facility to turn it from a minimum-security unit to medium security.

But all of those pricey improvements may be turned to dust if the state decides to transplant the corrections facility.

And the task of demolishing the 100 buildings on the site will be no easy feat, Ford said.

Along with 19 housing structures for 3,700 inmates, the Draper campus includes administrative offices, a mail center and a pump house used to pump water from a geothermal spring under the prison.

The housing structures are made of reinforced concrete and steel to keep some of the state's most dangerous criminals securely locked up, Ford said.

And demolishing those types of buildings — 1,111,459 square feet worth — could cost $4.2 million, said Bryce Christensen, an estimator at Grant Mackay Demolition Co.

The demolition costs aren't included in the $250 million to $300 million price tag Huntsman estimated to build a new prison elsewhere.

Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections, noted a comparable-size prison in her state had a price tag of nearly $312 million with roughly $24 million in added costs for planning and design.

Welcome to the neighborhood

Just where to invest that construction money is another key factor the winning consultant will be studying in the coming months.

According to the request for proposals, that study must address the potential of at least three cities to house a new prison and whether those cities could support a prison or a satellite facility.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of where a new prison should land is whether the site is far enough away from development to ensure it can stay for at least 50 years, Draper City Manager Eric Keck said. While the Draper site used to be considered the boondocks of both Utah and Salt Lake counties, the area is now flourishing with development that is pushing closer to the prison grounds.

"If you're going to move the prison, you only want to do it once," Keck said.

The prison was moved in 1951 from its aging Sugar House site because inmate escapes were becoming a daily occurrence, and the guards could no longer shoot at escaping inmates without posing a safety risk for the residential neighborhood that had grown around it.

If the prison were to move 30 miles away, it could be situated anywhere between Bountiful to the north to Spanish Fork in the south and from Grantsville in the west to Heber City in the east.

For a 40-mile move, the radius would expand to include Farmington and Antelope Island in the north to Santaquin in the south, remote Tooele County land in the west to Kamas in the east.

A 50-mile move could put the prison in Ogden to the north, Mona to the south, Skull Valley and Dugway to the west and the Uinta Mountains in the east.

A move of those distances will have an impact on the more than 1,000 employees who keep the 24-hour-a-day prison running.

Those employees come from all over Salt Lake and Utah counties. The locale with the highest representation is unincorporated Salt Lake County with 168 employees. Lehi follows with 141, and then Riverton with 101, Orem with 94, and West Jordan with 93 round out the top five.

With an average mean salary of $13.92 per hour for correctional officers, the largest group of employees, commuting costs could add up quickly and force employees to either move with the prison or find new jobs.

Moving the prison farther out from downtown amenities like courts and hospitals may also add heavy travel costs to provide for the needs and rights of the prisoners, Ford said.

The approximately 20-minute drive from the Draper site to downtown Salt Lake helps cut down on commuting costs and trips for the roughly 100 inmates who are taken to court hearings every day, Ford said.

In addition, about 20 to 30 inmates are taken to Salt Lake hospitals each day. Four inmates are currently on dialysis, which requires a routine hospital trip every other day. The department is analyzing the feasibility of purchasing its own dialysis machine to save on transportation costs, Ford said.

The Draper site's relative proximity to downtown hospitals has also been a plus in cases of prison violence, Ford said, when inmates have had to be airlifted to a Salt Lake trauma center.

The cost of moving a prison farther from downtown also has ramifications beyond spending tax dollars, Ford said. Longer commutes may also mean less family contact for the majority of inmates, 77 percent of whom were sentenced from district courts along the Wasatch Front, he said.

Those positive relationships can help inmates change and are one of the key factors in deciding if an inmate gets parole, said Board of Pardons and Parole member Don Blanchard.

"It makes the person despondent or less interested in getting out," Blanchard said.

Prime property

Much of the decision to move the prison will hinge on whether the value of the 750-acre prison site could offset the impact that moving prison the facility would have on state coffers and inmates themselves.

The state-owned acreage has tied up prime real estate for years, Keck said.

"The stigma of the prison has kept land around it from developing," Keck said. "There's a lot of people just lying out there wanting to make a deal on some of that land."

Easy freeway access from a site equidistant to both Provo and Salt Lake has had city planners scheming for at least five years, when rumors of a prison move first hit the city.

And the price for the desirable real estate keeps rising, Keck added. Based on recent commercial sales nearby, city estimates peg the land at about $8-$10 a square foot Although Keck said that figure could fluctuate between highway-front property and land farther west, a sale at $10 a square foot could bring in nearly $325 million for the state.

But commercial land surrounding the prison now on the market through Coldwell Banker and Commerce CRG is listed at closer to $3.50 a square foot. Keck, however, is still optimistic that land prices will more than double once the prison land is freed up — along with development opportunities.

"There's not much real estate and prime frontage along the freeway," Keck said. "It's going to be very attractive to a developer. It's very visible; it's very valuable."

Though Keck has not received any formal applications for the prison land, he said interest has increased in the past six months with at least four companies looking to develop land directly north of the prison.

Employment hub

But land value alone may not be enough of an incentive to sell and move an entire prison, Keck added, because the cost to construct a new prison may come close to the total land value.

The real economic benefit will come from what kind of development takes place on the prison lot, Keck said.

"Our goal is to see that property is master-planned and maximized for its highest and best use," he said. "There's going to be a lot of growth in this valley, and there are not enough jobs as it is."

Through conversations with the governor's office, Keck and city planners have started to envision a new master plan for the area that will transform the Point of the Mountain land into a regional employment center.

Keck said developing the prison site would be the final puzzle piece to completing the commercial corridor along I-15. Promises of a commuter rail running through the site and a freight rail cutting through the prison land also make the site a prime spot for an "employment center," he said.

The area, Keck added, would focus on bringing out-of-state business headquarters and Fortune 500 companies into Utah instead of just transferring retail from another city or county.

Similar office space lined up directly across the highway from the prison was sold or leased almost immediately after hitting the market, Keck said.

"There are just a lot of people who are willing to make an investment in those properties. The economy is making a rebound, and we're benefiting from that," he said.

The request for proposals that went out May 10 requires potential developers to address how the land use could be maximized to mesh with Draper and Bluffdale zoning laws and to promote the governor's economic development goals for the state.

"When the prison was created where it is, the rest of the Salt Lake Valley hadn't caught up to that area," Keck said. "Maybe it doesn't make sense for it to be there anymore."

E-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com; estewart@desnews.com