Committee votes to pursue plans for Utah prison relocation
Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A committee studying the possibility of relocating the Utah State Prison endorsed moving ahead Monday, citing the prospect of a huge economic return for the state in redeveloping the property.
Income from selling the property, building a commercial development in the state's emerging high-tech corridor and reducing prison labor costs would offset construction costs for a state-of-the-art prison, according to the Prison Relocation Authority Committee.
The committee — composed of state lawmakers, business leaders and local government representatives — voted to recommend that Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Legislature actively pursue plans to relocate the 61-year-old prison from southwestern Salt Lake County. After meeting for more than a year, the authority held its final meeting Monday.
"We have been sufficiently convinced it's worth doing if certain benchmarks are met," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, who is designated as the committee spokesman.
Herbert spokeswoman Ally Isom said the governor has yet to see a financially compelling proposal that demonstrates moving the prison makes sense to taxpayers.
"Bottom line: Any decision about relocating the Utah State Prison will be based on what is in the best long-term interests of Utah's taxpayers," Isom said.
Committee members will likely meet with the governor in the next week or so, Jenkins said.
Jenkins and Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, intend to co-sponsor legislation in January to set up an authority with power to request proposals and award contracts to tear down the current prison and build a new one.
"They have to do it without spending any money," Jenkins said. "The savings have to be enough that it would pay the debt service on a new prison."
That savings, he said, could be realized in reduced labor costs because a modern prison would require less staffing.
"You don't need as many people to watch the prisoners in these new facilities," Jenkins said.
The time to act is now, he said, because interest rates and construction costs are low. Rush Valley in Tooele County has been identified as one possible site for a new prison.
A 2005 study ordered by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. found it would cost $461 million to move the prison, but the 690-acre site is worth only as much as $93 million.
Former state Senate president and real estate broker Al Mansell has been a proponent of moving the prison and along with his business partner urged the committee to move forward earlier this year.
Mansell said the value isn't in selling the land but in attracting national and international companies to bring thousands of new, high-paying jobs, which he said previous studies overlooked.
"Run that into the tax numbers and tell me what the ground's worth. It won't be in the millions, by the way," he said, adding the value would be in the billions of dollars.
Mansell said the state would be "nuts" to simply sell off the property.
"I would be the most upset person in the state. I do not want to see the state hand that off to a developer and see them get all the benefits out of that. The state needs to be involved in the next 20 to 30 years," he said.
Draper has plans for a high-tech business park just south of the prison near the new commuter-rail station. City officials say their project could create as many as 25,000 jobs.
"We're twice the size of 'em. If we could do anything close to that, we'd be as happy as a pig in a poke," Jenkins said.
Mansell said he's not interested in buying the prison land. He said he would like to partner with the state to ensure the project put the ground to its highest and best use.
"Most of the time everybody thinks we're vultures," Mansell said, "but on this one I'm not a vulture at all. I'm far more interested in seeing the state get this thing done because I think it's going to produce jobs for my grandkids — good ones, really good ones."