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In our opinion: Pathway to 'Silicon Slopes' leads through relocation of state prison in Draper

Published: Sunday, July 13 2014 12:01 a.m. MDT

Inmates walk for exercise at the Utah State Prison in Draper.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News Archives

In 1951, when the Utah State Penitentiary was moved from the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City to its current location in Draper, it seemed a lot further away than it is today.

The expansion and enhancement of highways and other roads, and of the Frontrunner and TRAX train systems — plus the overall pace of economic development and construction between Provo and Salt Lake — has put the 700-acre prison facility in the center of the fast-growing high-tech sector. The prison is now surrounded: eBay is on the north, Adobe is on the south, with the facility flush up against the Point of the Mountain.

Over the course of three years, momentum has been gradually building to once again relocating the state prison. Gov. Gary Herbert’s creation of the Prison Relocation and Development Authority last year kick-started the effort. In February 2014, it recommended that the prison be moved. The Legislature also voted this past session to support relocation. And last month, an outside consulting firm offered four different relocation timetables.

These developments may have moved too quickly. One close observer and critic of the prison relocation process is Maryann Martindale, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for a Better Utah. She said that “our approach has always been that if we are going to do this, and it appears as through the momentum is moving [the prison], we need to do it right.” Recent developments by PRADA, including the consultant’s report, have caused her to be “cautiously optimistic,” she said.

Alliance for a Better Utah cites three concerns: (1) ensuring that the value of the state land on which the prison sits be maximized if relocation takes place; (2) finding a new location along the Wasatch Front accessible to the existing volunteer and employee base; and (3) ensuring transparency and disclosure by members of the Legislature as part of any prison relocation.

We share each of these concerns.

The consultant’s report demonstrated that Utah will need more prison beds. While we also support seeking alternatives to incarceration, the reality of Utah’s growing population will likely dictate a growing prison population. Utah’s other significant facility, at Gunnison, is expanding but cannot continue to grow. A new prison seems to be necessary.

It’s also important to separate the decision about whether or not to build a new prison with the question of what to do about the Draper property, should it become available for other uses.

Much remains to be done before either process is finalized. But it’s not too soon for the Legislature, for cities and for universities to think more seriously about the Draper property’s role in economic development.

“The state should hold on to the parcel, put a master plan in place, and be strategic about what should go there,” said Jeremy Keele, senior adviser to Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.

Adds Ari Bruening, chief operating officer of the nonprofit partnership Envision Utah, “You have to think about the entire area and what those 700 acres could be a catalyst for.”

Universities have been a key determinant in the economic success of Silicon Valley and the Route 128 corridor near Boston. But it isn’t necessary to look that far away for other university-based models for economic development. In particular, the Research Park at the University of Utah — which began in 1970 when a part of Fort Douglas was deeded to the U. — “has been characterized by a steady pace of land absorption, new construction and employment growth.” By 1997, it was the 12th largest such facility in the nation.

If the “Silicon Slopes” is to truly take off along the Wasatch Front, what is now needed is concerted thinking about what universities can do to help incubate technology talent in Utah. We call on the colleges and universities — particularly the U., BYU, Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University — to be proactive in accepting the public trust role they could play in aiding economic development.

This newspaper has long advocated ensuring that the needs and rehabilitation of inmates is uppermost in the public’s mind as prison relocation is debated. We continue to support those efforts. As discussion moves toward what to do in Draper after relocation, we strongly advocate a “trust-based” approach to finding the best public and private purposes for this prime parcel of land.

Just as the state moved the prison from Sugar House more than 60 years ago, there’s nothing inevitable about keeping — or moving — the prison in Draper. But the relocation process needs to adopt a deliberative and comprehensive strategy, rather than a haphazard and piecemeal push. That way decisions leading to a future state prison, and a new and revitalized region at the Point of the Mountain, could provide an enduring legacy for the Herbert administration and the Legislature.

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