DRAPER — Last week the Prison Relocation Commission voted unanimously to move the prison from its current location here to a new, vacant industrial site west of the Salt Lake City Airport. This political hot potato is now squarely before the Legislature and the governor. They should promptly follow through on this well-crafted recommendation.
But in this column, the last of four on the prison relocation process, I'd like to consider what needs to happen next here in Draper, presuming that opposition from Salt Lake City or other quarters won't derail momentum toward siting a new facility by the state's political leaders.
The arguments for moving the prison are sound: A new prison is necessary but needs to be built near the population center of the state, and also done with an eye toward future uses of land and development along the Wasatch Front.
The city of Draper, at the south end of Salt Lake County, hasn't been shortsighted in beginning the planning process and in taking prudent steps to prepare for higher densities.
"We want to see the most intense office/mixed-use development that we can put on top of it," Mayor Troy Walker said in an interview, speaking about the property that has hosted the prison for the last 64 years. Hence the impressive renderings of what Draper could look like a few decades hence, if current growth and development trends continue.
Referring to the nearby commuter train stops, he said, "We zoned our Frontrunner stop a transit-oriented project with unlimited density," allowing builders to construct buildings "as high as they want."
But Draper cannot do this process along. It is only one-half of the twin technology hubs at the Point of the Mountain where Salt Lake and Utah counties converge. Judging by the number of construction towers visible from Interstate 15, Lehi in Utah County is equally booming.
Speaking before the recommendation to move the prison was made, Walker said, "I would never contend that the prison has been a bad neighbor, but this is the most unique and developable property in the Intermountain West, and perhaps west of the Mississippi."
"The prison is outdated, and it needs to be rebuilt. The reality is that the development is happening: It is literally around the prison right now."
Because the pace of real-estate development is so rapid, it's well past time for a range of stakeholders to strategically consider the developmental needs of the state, of the two counties and of the cities of Draper, Lehi, plus neighboring cities of Bluffdale, Riverton, South Jordan and Sandy.
"As land in the valley is used up for other purposes, eventually development is going to have to go vertical," added David Dobbins, Draper’s city manager.
Although Draper's civic center has been and will remain on the east side of I-15, Dobbins anticipates that the area likely to be vacated by the prison "would be highly dense, with a different type of development that would have a lot of commercial use and office space."
But if our state wants to take the next step in the maturation of its so-called "Silicon Slopes," it will be necessary to bring more than just political leaders to the negotiating table.
Who's been missing from publicly participating in such discussions? Planning and transportation officials, major employers, landowners, builders of all types of infrastructure and — most critically — university officials.
Draper and Lehi are prospering because employers can draw talent from both the Salt Lake and the Provo/Orem population centers along the Wasatch Front. In a column on the opportunity presented by prison relocation, Jeff Edwards of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah highlighted the critical role that research universities "both north and south" can play on stoking growth in the center of our co-joined valleys.
That's another way of saying what we're lacking in southern Salt Lake and northern Utah counties: A research university, a training university, or even a campus of any sort of university!
It's hard to understate the crucial role that education plays in economic development, both at primary/secondary level and through higher education. Too often in Utah and elsewhere, the outputs of universities are mismatched to the real-life needs of employers, particular technology companies.
Indeed, as I wrote in a column last year on the new Ogden city center, "educational institutions and technology strength is the new template for successful economic development."
Our state will miss an opportunity unless our universities, most particularly the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College, step up their game and get involved in finding ways to help meet the needs — social, cultural, educational and economic — associated with new growth and development that is and will continue to take place here at the Point of the Mountain.