The process of determining what will happen to the land left when the Utah State Prison departs from the Point of the Mountain should be thorough, transparent and open to ideas from any and all stakeholders, who include virtually every citizen. What kind of development occurs is a matter of importance to the entire state and should be approached as a unique opportunity to set guidelines for best use of the property, now and in the long-term.
The Legislature seems to have taken the first step in that process by moving to create a commission to assess development options. HB318 would create a panel made up of state and local leaders, economic development officials and citizens representing various interests. We appreciate the commission’s charge under the bill to “study and develop strategies to engage the public and collaborate with stakeholders.” Having consistent public representation will go far to guarantee transparency, which should be the commission’s highest priority.
The nature of the decision-making that led to the relocation of the prison spawned concerns the move was setting the stage for politically connected developers to reap windfall profits. Those concerns are not invalid given the fact that a fair share of lawmakers are in the business of real estate development, or connected to it indirectly. If there is any hint of any kind of favoritism, or a fast track toward a certain kind of development, the commission and the Legislature, as its forebear, will lose credibility.
In addition, the land in question is state-owned and it is the Legislature’s duty to proffer wise stewardship. That means looking long-term, past the current boom cycle that has seen a plethora of tech-related companies locating along what’s being called “Silicone Slopes.” Booms can turn into busts, and it would seem imprudent to view the 700-acre tract exclusively as a venue for the continuation of tech-related development, though that may end up being a big part of it.
Development in the Salt Lake Valley has meant diminishing open space, and the concept of devoting at least part of the land to a regional park is worth considering. Universities have been key in the success of Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128 corridor. Thinking about the placement of higher education resources and assets should also be part of the land use considerations.
It is the Legislature’s obligation to extract the most value for the land, in part to pay for the new prison. But value isn’t always measured in terms of dollars on the current barrelhead. Wise planning will see to it that value increases over time, which may speak to the need to consider diversity in the planning process, and not allow it to fall victim to the kind of chock-a-block mixed-use sprawl common in other parts of the valley.
It’s important the Legislature has acted quickly to begin the process and set sights on engaging public interest. It is a process that must be open, and one that should not be short-lived or shortsighted.