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Utah prison relocation: Boondoggle or economic boon?

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19 2013 7:50 p.m. MST

A committee created by the 2011 Legislature recommended last month to relocate the state prison to "allow private development of the land on which the state prison is presently located."

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Moving the state prison and developing the land where it now sits could yield a $20 billion return and bring as many as 40,000 jobs to Utah, lawmakers were told Tuesday.

But those who oppose the ambitious project see it as a boondoggle that would hurt taxpayers and allow real estate developers to line their pockets.

Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, spent more than a year on the Prison Relocation Authority Committee studying the possibility of moving the 61-year-old prison from southwestern Salt Lake County.

"In the end, we decided it was economically viable," Jenkins said. "We looked at the value of the land and the economic punch we'd get out of that land."

Several people wearing "No New Prison!" stickers told a legislative committee that moving the prison is a costly idea that won't bring the predicted returns.

"This is a bunch of money for a bunch of promises," Jesse Fruhwirth told the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. "That sounds like an Obama stimulus plan."

The committee heard testimony but did not vote Tuesday on a bill that would set in motion relocating and rebuilding the prison and redeveloping its current 690-acre site.

SB72 would create the Prison Land Management Authority to oversee the massive project. It would establish a process for issuing a request for proposals to tear down and build a new prison and allow the authority to evaluate bids and make a recommendation to the Legislature and governor.

The Prison Relocation Authority Committee — composed of state lawmakers, business leaders and local government officials — recommended last December that Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature actively pursue plans to relocate prison. The land management board proposed in SB72 would replace the relocation committee.

The estimated cost for moving and building a new prison are estimated at $550 million to $600 million. Jenkins said at least two-thirds of the cost for a would be covered in the savings from a modernized prison and the sale of the current property.

Building a new facility would save an estimated $20 million annually in operating costs, while the land would bring at least $140 million, he said.

Proponents of the project see the current prison site being developed as a technology center. The relocation committee estimated it would bring $20 billion in economic development to the state along with 30,000 to 40,000 jobs.

The new authority would start work in April, but it would be "unrealistic" to expect legislation by the time lawmakers convene in 2014, Jenkins said. But, he said, the governor has agreed to call the Legislature into special session when the panel has a proposal.

Herbert said there is no hurry.

"I'd rather do it right than do it quick. This ought to be done certainly in a timely fashion. But there should not to be any rush to get this thing done," he said at his weekly media briefing. "It ought to give us adequate time to explore and vet all the issues and make sure we get this done correctly."

Possible locations include Tooele, Box Elder and Juab counties. The prison employs about 2,000 people and maintains about 1,600 volunteers.

"There's lots of viable sites," Jenkins said. "We don't view that as a big issue."

The governor called for strict guidelines about membership on the authority board so "no one can sit on the board that has any potential of conflict of interest," including ties to a developer or law enforcement.

"I'm very concerned and adamant about that aspect, that there can't be any conflict of interest," Herbert said.

The bill currently calls for a 10-member committee, including representatives from the state Department of Corrections, the Governor's Office of Economic Development, and two each from the real estate and construction industries, all appointed by the governor. The House and Senate would appoint one member each, while Draper would provide two.

Sanpete County Commissioner Jon Cox said he doesn't oppose the project, but said he has concerns about the makeup of the board. Rural counties should be represented because many of them house state prison inmates, he said.

Herbert said it's important whatever is done with the prison should be in the best interest of taxpayers and that there is an economic opportunity to provide tax revenue that helps pay for public education.

Resident Lee Ann Walker sees it as a moneymaker for land developers.

"This is bad any way you look at it," she said. "This money should be going into the schools."

Jenkins said he doesn't see it as windfall for developers if it is done correctly.

The governor said he has no preconceived notions about the project.

"I expect there is more than one way to skin a cat. There are probably a number of proposals out there that would make some sense," Herbert said. "And if they don't make sense on behalf of that taxpayers, we ought to not do it or at least delay it."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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