DRAPER — Utah's economy is growing rapidly, and so is its population. These facts influence the emerging common-sense viewpoint that it's time to relocate the state prison from its current home here.
As I’ve approached the subject from many vantage points, including the perspectives of former inmates and prison volunteers, I’ve come away impressed with the state’s fair-minded and comprehensive approach to relocation. Of the four sites under consideration, the industrial-zoned site west of the Salt Lake City Airport stands out as a superior alternative on which to build.
Utah is a unique state in significant ways. Our strong economy, second only to North Dakota's natural gas boomlet, is driven by high-tech entrepreneurship, by population growth and by a healthy birth rate. The state can seem rural, but is the sixth-most urban state because population is centered along the benches and valleys of the Wasatch Front.
Given the near-doubling of population, from 2.9 million today to an expected 5.4 million in 2050, we need to be conscious and not cavalier about social and land-use decisions like the location of our largest prison.
Other states generally have more, smaller prisons. They are often scattered in rural areas. In these states, prison-driven economic development is a buzzword. It works if the goal is to isolate prisoners from the state’s inhabitants.
That approach is exactly backward: A prison should not be a magnet for correctional jobs. Instead, state economic development should follow human development for the prisoner: Helping inmates enhance their judgment and their skills to meaningfully contribute when released.
The Draper facility is either beyond repair or in need of expensive rebuilding. The emerging consensus is that we need a new prison, and yet that prison needs to be nearby. The tough part is finding cost-effective real estate big enough, and close enough, to provide the support networks prisoners need.
After some initial false starts — including a commission that combined prison relocating with redevelopment — the Legislature firmly took control of this process 18 months ago. It created the Prison Relocation Commission and voted to move it from Draper. The PRC was to find the best site possible.
Now, after buying themselves an additional month of time, the PRC has announced that it could recommend a new site on Tuesday among the sites under consideration in Salt Lake City, in Grantsville, near Eagle Mountain, or Fairfield.
The PRC has been guiding by the right priorities: Fully 35 percent of points in the selection process were for the site’s proximity to staff, visitors, volunteers, plus medical and legal services. That's more than twice the points as the next-highest categories, including 15 percent for land preparation, 15 percent for infrastructure costs, 15 percent for community acceptance, and 10 percent each for negotiating ownership issues and development costs.
After narrowing dozens of sites against those criteria, the PRC announced six possible sites in December 2014, including some where landowners dropped out. The commission did another site canvas in January, leading to two additional sites among those still under consideration (Grantsville and Fairfield).
Throughout this entire process, Draper — the current site — simply didn't make the cut.
"Building it in Draper would be the worst decision we could make for taxpayers in the state," said Rep. Brand Wilson, co-chairman of the PRC. "It would cost taxpayers a lot more money than building it somewhere else, and we would forgo the opportunity for job creation in that portion of the valley that is becoming a high-tech magnet."
The PRC and its consultants benchmark the cost of building a new prison at $550 million. Although they estimate the cost of basic repairs to the Draper facility at $256 million, it would instead cost $587 million to upgrade the facility with the improvements necessary to conduct the kinds of counseling and training that corrections officials now view as necessary for rehabilitation.
The case for relocation from Draper is bolstered by estimates of the value of repurposing land at the heart of the “Silicon Slopes” tech boom, where Salt Lake and Utah counties converge: An estimated $1.8 billion in total economic output for the state.
That's the case for relocating. The case for moving to industrial land west of Salt Lake City is driven by two factors: Its continued relative closeness to the state's urban core, in an area where commercial, retail and residential real estate is not really a development option.
Indeed, the area west of the airport already faces a natural buffer with the Great Salt Lake. That makes it unlikely that, if Utah selects this site, it would need to relocate again a generation from now.
Moving the prison here from Salt Lake’s Sugar House neighborhood in 1951 may have made sense, given Draper’s remoteness at the time. Now it’s time to move again.
Next week: What should happen to the site in Draper once the prison is relocated?