SALT LAKE CITY — Amid criticism from one of its own board members earlier this week that the Utah Inland Port Authority Board isn't moving fast enough, the board took another step Wednesday to kickstart the creation of what's expected to be Utah's largest economic project ever.
The port authority board — which has been functioning without any staff for nearly four months — voted to hire an interim executive director while it continues its search for a permanent chief staffer.
That six-month contract with Chris Conabee, former managing director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development and chairman of the Point of the Mountain Development Commission, will cost the port authority $100,000, as well as potentially a $10,000 bonus at the end of his contract.
Without debate, the board voted unanimously to hire Conabee, who didn't make it to Wednesday's meeting due to a snowstorm that kept him from traveling from Park City, said Derek Miller, the board's chairman and president of the Salt Lake Chamber.
"I think we all agree Chris is the right individual for the job," Miller said, noting Conabee's experience with public engagement for the Point of the Mountain's development.
"He wanted me to share with you his commitment, his desire, everything he can bring to bear on this project during the next six months to make sure it's successful," Miller said.
Conabee's hiring is one of several actions the board has taken over the last nearly four months to get the port authority's wheels turning, including the adoption of a $2 million budget.
But earlier this week, board member Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, (Senate President Niederhauser's appointee) complained to legislators sitting on the Legislative Management Committee that the port authority's progress has been sluggish.
"It's kind of frustrating how slow things are happening, quite frankly, to me," Buxton told lawmakers, noting that other cities including Albuquerque, New Mexico, have started their own work to build an inland port.
"Utah's going to miss the opportunity if they don't step up and do this a little faster," Buxton said. "I'd send some encouragement to the right people. That's got to move along faster if we're going to get it done in the timeframe where it really becomes effective for us here in Utah."
Buxton's comments frustrated House Speaker-elect Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who questioned whether legislators would need to consider legislation to change the governance of the inland port board if some members of the board weren't being "responsive."
"Is the inland port board committed to the success of the inland port?" Wilson asked Buxton.
"I believe there are those on the board that are, and there are those that are not," Buxton told the speaker-elect.
Wilson replied: "We ought to talk about maybe changing the way it's operating because we can't afford to have people dragging their feet on something of this much significance for our state," Wilson said.
Buxton also noted the port authority was "still getting bombarded pretty regularly" by critics of the port who have been concerned about its potential impact on air quality.
"I think there are some people who are really committed, but I think that the public that's coming to these meetings are beating the hell out of us every time we turn around," Buxton noted.
The senator's comments drew ire from several members of the public who came to speak at Wednesday's meeting. Some accused Buxton for viewing public concerns as a nuisance, while others criticized him for throwing his own colleagues under the bus.
"If that continues, the attitude that we're a problem, it's going to be a problem, legally and otherwise," said Terry Marasco, a board member of Utah Moms for Clean Air.
"For Mr. Buxton to say he in some way or another doesn't trust that you're committed, some of you, is stunning — that someone on this board would even criticize his colleagues," Marasco added. "You might want to find a replacement for him."
Nigel Swaby, a Fairpark Community Council board member, also said he was left "concerned by Buxton's comments," noting the port authority is "already under a cloud of suspicion by the community."
"We have to remember this project will take a long time to fully roll out," Swaby said. "I urge you to think of it more as a marathon than a sprint."
Buxton listened quietly and didn't respond to any of the criticism about his comments.
However, Miller, without directly addressing Buxton, took a moment toward the end of Wednesday's meeting to list off the port authority's progress, noting that the port has only been active for less than four months.
In that time, the board has adopted the Open and Public Meetings Act, adopted a public decorum policy, held public hearings to adopt its first budget, and has begun work to hire an executive director, among other steps, Miller said.
"I congratulate and thank the board for all the great work they've been doing," Miller said, before reading a portion of a letter he wrote to lawmakers on the executive appropriations committee.
"I want to assure members of this executive appropriations committee and the Legislature that the board will continue to move forward with the responsibility you've given us: to guide the development of the cleanest, most technologically advanced port that will be a gem for our state and a model for the nation," Miller said. "The board's commitment to do so is following a prudent process that is founded on study and fact and study, not conjecture and fear."
However, following Buxton's comments, the port appears to be picking up steam.7 comments on this story
Though the board has up until recently only been meeting once a month, board members agreed to meet a second time in December — Dec. 27 — to address the possible creation of a project area before the end of the year.
That project area could facilitate a deal with Stadler Rail, the Swiss-based railcar maker that previously struck a tax deal with Salt Lake City to expand its new facility in northwest Salt Lake City. But that deal was left uncertain after the port authority was created, usurping Salt Lake City's ability to promise future tax increment to the company.