With its first phase now in full operation, the Central Utah Correctional Facility is giving a major economic boost to a rural area squeezed by depressed prices for sheep, turkey and dairy products.

That boost has come mainly from employment opportunities for local residents.According to warden Fred Van Der Veur, the facility now has 243 full-time employees and 25 contract employees - people like doctors and dentists who work on a part-time basis.

The annual take-home pay of the average employee, after deductions, is probably in the neighborhood of $20,000, Van Der Veur said. And most of that nearly $5 million total is spent locally, in Sanpete and Sevier counties and towns along Highway 89.

An example is Manti, where 36 of the present 243 full-time employees live. And 18 of those 36 relocated to Manti from as far away as Ogden in part because they wanted to live in a rural area.

One result has been a shot in the arm for the housing market - both rental and for-sale properties. And other positive results have been felt at the cash registers of businesses up and down the highway.

"One family of six that has moved in for employment at the prison is living in a motel until I can find something better and less expensive for them," said one real estate agent.

The ripple effect is felt everywhere, of course, and it isn't always positive. The prison falls within the jurisdiction of Sanpete County, and when a criminal offense occurs within the prison - for example, an assault - the county's legal department has to handle it.

"I've now got four prison cases on the docket," said county attorney Ross Blackham, who not only has to prosecute but also pay the costs of a public defender.

"It's already straining my budget," he said.

But expenses like this are only a minor flaw in the overall picture: a state institution pouring significant money into the local economic stream.

And that contribution will swell when the second phase of the correctional facility goes on line, said Van Der Veur. While still some years away, the next step results in an additional 150 full-time employees.

In the meantime, he added, there's still some outside work to be done on the grounds - installing a sprinkling system, landscaping, fixing up. "I want the place to look right," he said.

And that will mean more local employment opportunities - quite a few temporary jobs at the facility this summer.