The governor spoke, a high school band played and ground was broken Tuesday afternoon for a new $35 million prison.
But the symbolic groundbreaking marked much more than potential relief to Utah's continuing prison overcrowding problems. It marked the dawn of a long-hoped-for economic recovery for Sanpete and Sevier counties."We're tickled to death, to say the least," said Gunnison Mayor Bruce Blackham. "We have a lot more opportunities for work, a chance for new people to move into the community."
The construction project will benefit the local economy, either directly or indirectly. Contractors have already begun subcontracting with local construction companies, real estate sales are beginning to pull out of an extended slump, new businesses are opening up, and new, bigger commercial developments are rumored.
"We're already starting to see the benefits," Blackham said. "We've got a new car dealership, a new photography business, a ceramic shop. That's progress for a small town like Gunnison, where our only cafe in town had to close its doors awhile back."
After construction is finished in early 1990, the prison's operating budget is expected to pump $11 million to $12 million annually into the local economy, about $7 million of which will be salaries to people living in the area.
Blackham sees the economic benefits of the new regional prison spreading far beyond Gunnison. Towns as far away as Nephi and Richfield could also see direct benefits, as will communities like Salina, Mt. Pleasant and Manti.
Probably 70 to 80 percent of the 250 employees that will be hired will come from the region between Nephi and Richfield, said Ken Shulsen, director of administrative services for the Utah Department of Corrections.
"It will be a major, major solution to their economic problems, and enthusiasm there seems to be increasing as the project becomes more of a reality," he said. "It's amazing the kind of support we're getting. The whole town is turning out for the groundbreaking."
The new 633-bed maximum-security prison will be built under six different contracts over a two-year period. The prison is expected to be completed by January 1990 and occupied by March 1990.
The 1987 Legislature appropriated $2 million for land acquisition and site development. The 1988 Legislature appropriated $16.9 million to begin the project and promised another $17 million in 1989 to finish the first phase.
The prison will be built in such a way that housing units can be added as the need arises and funding allows. Population studies in preparation for a second construction phase, to cost an additional $20 million and add 768 medium security beds, will begin in 1989.
A third construction phase, which officials estimate will cost $15 million more and add another 768 medium security beds, will probably begin within the next 10 years.
The three construction phases are expected to be completed at a cost of $30,000 to $35,000 per bed space. National averages run $50,000 to $100,000 per bed space. The Gunnison prison will also be less expensive to operate than the Draper site.