Ravell Call, Deseret News
Utah State Prison in Draper.

One thing that gets state Rep. Fred Cox “ticked” is the notion the Utah State Prison can’t be rebuilt in Draper, where it currently sits.

“Whether it should remain in Draper is something smart people can disagree about, but I don’t understand how smart people can disagree that it can be rebuilt there,” he told me by phone. “Anyone looking at an aerial photo can immediately see there is ample room to do that.”

To help the discussion, Cox, an architect with 30 years experience doing commercial site planning, has posted such an aerial photo on his blog, Fredcox4utah.blogspot.com. He proposes rebuilding in phases.

Whether he has the clout necessary to stop this political freight train, however, remains to be seen.

Relocating the state’s most visible prison — one known for its army of local volunteers who provide religious counseling and other services — is among the most important, and expensive, decisions involving taxpayer money in recent memory.

And yet people who suggest the state rebuild in Draper are met with two bumper-sticker responses that don’t tell the whole story. One is, “The decision to move has been made.” The other is, simply, “$1.8 billion,” referring to an estimate by consultant MGT of America as to how much private economic activity could be generated on that site.

When members of the Prison Relocation Commission say the decision has been made, they are referring to a 2014 legislative resolution. It said the issue had “received much attention and study.” But that study included only "a very quick look" at rebuilding, as commission co-chair Sen. Jerry Stevenson said recently.

Telling the public the Legislature has made a final decision (legislative decisions never are final, and that's why the state keeps holding elections) rings hollow in light of this.

Cox believes the state’s first step should have been to decide what is needed in a new prison, study what it would cost and then thoroughly review the Draper site to see whether it could be applied there.

“I haven’t seen anyone who’s gone through this and said, ‘This is what a new Draper location would look like and what it would cost,’” he said.

The second quick response, “$1.8 billion,” is under reconsideration at the moment. Prison Relocation Commission co-chairman and House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson has asked legislative staff to study whether it’s too low. But Rep. Merrill Nelson has asked the same people to study whether it’s too high.

Neither effort helps much. What’s lacking is a healthy dose of perspective. MGT’s study said the $1.8 billion estimate includes business and spending that would move to Draper from other parts of Utah and Salt Lake counties, “and activities that are new to the region (i.e., relocating from outside the region).”

That’s an important distinction. Merely moving a business from one part of the county to another won’t generate any more money for the state.

In addition, $1.8 billion has to be compared to the current size of Utah’s economy, which is approaching $150 billion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Utah’s economy grew by 3.1 percent last year, which was well over $1.8 billion.

There is nothing magical about Draper. It’s reasonable to believe whatever new business would go there could just as easily be attracted to Lehi or some other place in the state.

Public hearings tend to attract people who feel threatened. It’s easy to dismiss the angry crowds as hyper local rabble. But an opinion poll conducted late last year by Dan Jones & Associates for Utahpolicy.com found 55 percent of people statewide opposing the move. Cox believes the majority of his constituents in West Valley City, far from any proposed site, are included in that figure.

With the governor poised to call a special session once the commission decides on a site, options for keeping the prison in Draper are dwindling, short of voting down the eventual recommendation.

Cox also is trying to repeal a law passed this year that moves the process along.

Meanwhile, however, he looks at the four sites under final consideration and asks, “If those are the four best sites we have, you tell me why Draper isn’t better.”

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at [email protected]. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.