SALT LAKE CITY — The state lawmaker who is trying to help those who oppose moving the Utah State Prison from Draper launch a referendum said he's putting together a proposal for building a new facility on-site.
"I get in trouble for being too practical," said Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, an architect who helped draw up plans for the state prison in Gunnison and spent several years as a volunteer at the prison in Draper.
Cox has already examined aerial photos of the site and said he believes there's plenty of room to build new facilities along the site of the aging prison before tearing it down and selling off the excess property.
"There's more land that isn't developed at Draper than is," Cox said of the prison's nearly 700-acre site at Point of the Mountain, predicting the state could cut the cost of a modern prison, estimated at $550 million, in half by staying in Draper.
"If you put $250 million into Draper, you could do a lot," he said.
But those who see the site as key for economic development along the so-called "Silicon Slopes" say taxpayers will reap big dividends from the move.
"I think the worst decision we could make for the taxpayers of Utah is to leave the prison where it's at," said the commission's co-chairman, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton. "The economic opportunity lost is tremendous if we walk away from that."
The consultants hired by the state to study a move, MGT of America, estimated in a January 2014 report that once the Draper site is fully developed, the economic benefit would be worth $1.8 billion annually.
Stevenson said the job of the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission, created after lawmakers voted in 2014 to move the prison from Draper, is to find a new place to build a facility for some 4,000 inmates.
The commission, which has an Aug. 1 deadline, has narrowed its search to five sites, in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County, near Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City, and in and near Grantsville in Tooele County.
All of the sites have community opposition and are being analyzed by the consultants to determine whether infrastructure or other issues would take any of them out of the running.
Consultant Bob Nardi said there was no indication the Draper site should be studied "when the message from the Legislature was so emphatic and clear, 'We're moving the prison.'"
Depending on how soon the consultants finish their work and what they find, a site could be identified as soon as next month. Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to call lawmakers into special session to consider their pick.
During this year's legislative session, the governor declared there was a 50-50 chance the prison would stay in Draper and all but threatened to veto a proposal that would have given the commission the final say on the move.
"The governor has said all along that if there's a better place to build the prison than Draper, then we should do it. If there's not, we should leave it there," his spokesman, Marty Carpenter, said Wednesday.
He said the governor's "push all along was not that we need to consider the Draper site. It was that we need to find the best site." Herbert has veto power over whatever decision the Legislature makes in special session.
Cox said he wants to try again at the special session on the prison to get lawmakers to take a closer look at keeping the facility in Draper. But similar attempts he and others made during the 2015 Legislature were rebuffed.
He has already asked the Utah Supreme Court to order the state to accept a late referendum application from the Keep It in Draper group seeking to repeal a new law that includes funding for the relocation process.
On Wednesday, Cox said he also asked the court to put the new law on hold pending a decision on the referendum. If the referendum goes forward, the group would have about 30 days to collect more than 100,000 signatures statewide.
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