Editor’s note: Derek Miller writes a regular column for the Deseret News.
Few are poised to catalyze Utah’s economy quite like 45-year-old Derek Miller.
Despite sharing a surname, Miller is not from Utah’s well-known Jazz-owning billionaire brood (“I wish,” he jokes).
At his core, Miller is a progeny of Provo.
Born to BYU professors, he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Belgium, and then finished BYU with three degrees of glory: a bachelor’s in international relations, a master’s in public administration and a J.D., doctor of law.
Since Miller took over as the CEO of World Trade Center Utah in 2014, the world has literally become Miller’s campus. But if he gets his way, he’ll soon turn the Beehive State into the globe’s campus as well.
“Utah has been known as the crossroads of the West since the time of the pioneers, he says. “The legacy continues today.”
Miller’s biggest idea is hardly intuitive — build a port in one the nation’s most arid, landlocked states. And yet, if his logic bears out, there’s mounting evidence that an inland port in Utah could be, in his own words, a significant economic “benefit (to) the state for the next 40 to 50 years.”
As co-chair of Gov. Gary Herbert’s inland port exploratory committee, Miller will have a role in the RFP process, selecting a firm to perform the feasibility study on his brainchild.
A few years back, during a trade mission in Hong Kong with Zion’s Bank CEO Scott Anderson and developer Steve Price, the three men shared an epiphany — Utah is a hub within the global supply chain. While staring at Hong Kong’s King-Kong-sized seaport, they wondered if the best way to leverage and expand the state’s position would be an inland port.
Nineteenth-century luminary Ralph Waldo Emerson famously gave thanks to “the genius of Brigham Young for the creation of Salt Lake City.” He dubbed it “an inestimable hospitality to the Overland Emigrants.”
A recent market assessment by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah provides more contemporary comments on the unique characteristics that continue to make Utah an important crossroads. Indeed, the infrastructure that has helped keep Utah connected for the better part of two centuries still makes the region an attractive link in the chain of international and national trade.
Utah, according to the policy institute’s market assessment, could be an ideal location for a potential inland port. Just like a normal seaport, an inland version would house, pack, ship, receive and send goods but with rail, roads and airports rather than waterways.
Miller recently drove me out past the Salt Lake airport with Tammy Hunsaker from Salt Lake City’s Department of Economic Development.
Stepping out into the arid, undeveloped northwest quadrant — an area that the city and other stakeholders have slated for possible development — we surveyed the nascent signs of transformation taking place.
Soon the state penitentiary will move from its current location at the Point of the Mountain to the new site west of the airport. The project will put in place the kind of infrastructure that could facilitate large-scale commercial development there.
We drove to a nearby intersection. There you can hear the simultaneous hum of trucks on Interstate 80 and airplanes descending overhead while commercial rail rolls by. Add to this trifecta a $3 billion overhaul and expansion of the airport and the raison d’etre for an inland port starts to materialize.
But don’t just take it from Miller or me — ask Amazon and UPS. The gigantic online retailer recently announced a new $200 million regional fulfillment facility in Salt Lake City. Not to be outdone, UPS has already broken ground on an 840,000-square-foot distribution facility. The biggest economic impact of an inland port, however, may not be in distribution, warehousing and logistics. End-of-the-line manufacturing could bring back jobs long lost to overseas automation.
When goods come in to port, they often need finishing touches. Full-scale manufacturing operations in close proximity to ports can help touch up products prior to distribution.
While the inland project has potential upsides, a large-scale effort of this magnitude demands nuanced analysis. Such a sizable financial investment, which would increase strain on local infrastructure, demands sound justifications. Otherwise, the project could become little more than a taxpayer-subsidized Porsche for a few local logistics companies. Hopefully, the feasibility study and subsequent legislative debate will satisfy remaining questions.
But for now, Miller remains bullish on an idea that has the potential to propel Utah for the next half-century.