Eric S. Peterson
Draper's Utah State Prison
A panel of state lawmakers on Tuesday pegged a 4,000-acre site near the Salt Lake City International Airport as the prime location for a new state prison.
The site, one of four under consideration, would provoke the fewest negative economic impacts to surrounding communities and, over time, would be the most affordable to operate, members of the seven-person Prison Relocation Commission noted as they voted unanimously in favor of the Salt Lake City location.
The Legislature’s efforts to move the prison from its current site in Draper has touched off controversy and sparked protest from every single community mentioned as a potential suitor. In addition to Salt Lake City, Eagle Mountain, Grantsville and Fairfield made the short list.
While the commission and its members maintained throughout the multi-year process that led to Tuesday’s decision that the intrigue of developing the roughly 700 acres of dirt under the Draper site wasn’t weighing heavily on their minds, some commissioners—a final decision all but behind them—at last acknowledged this point.
This reality was cemented by Jeff Edwards, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, who told the commission that development opportunities at the Draper prison “unprecedented.”
Over the past few years, as Utah has lured a robust technology sector to the state, many have located near the Draper prison. And as Salt Lake City’s suburbs have consumed vast swaths of land to the south, and communities in Utah County have spread north, a large workforce has sprung up in the area.
“The highest and best use is a high quality industrial park for technology companies and not a prison,” Edwards told the commission about the Draper site. “That land in my opinion is too valuable, not just because of what it is, but because of where it is.”
Rep. Karen Mayne, D-Salt Lake City, said that aside from the economic benefits of developing the Draper prison, Utahns would be put to work constructing the new facility, which the legislature has set aside roughly half a billion dollars to build.
The Salt Lake site, located near Interstate 80 and 7200 west, has several appealing features over the other sites, including lower costs of transporting inmates, less travel time for prison personnel and volunteers and lower long-term operating costs. But the total capital costs of the Salt Lake City site are estimated at $154.4 million, $20 million more than in Grantsville, which had the second highest capital costs, and $66 million more than the Eagle Mountain site.
Cost of land appears to account for the largest chunk of this disparity, with land acquisitions in Salt Lake City estimated to cost $30 million compared to $5 million at the Fairfield site.
One possibility—rebuilding the prison on dirt the state already owns at the current site—was not discussed at length. But Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said that two weeks ago, he took a tour of the prison, and he believes that rebuilding it where it currently stands “was not going to be an option.”
“Moving it is important,” Gibson said.
The final say will lie with the Legislature, and then Gov. Gary Herbert, who is expected to call a special legislative session in the near future to take up the matter.
One concern about the Salt Lake City site was registered by Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, who pointed out that soft soil at parts of the site extended 125 feet underground, or roughly 12 stories. Wheatley’s concerns about soil structure appeared to be assuaged by a consultant who noted that construction at the airport is facing similar challenges.
But in the earthquake-prone Salt Lake Valley, this soil structure will long be a concern. According to an analysis presented to the commission, soil stabilization and deep foundation work at the site could take 18 to 36 months. In addition, the elevation of a 360-acre portion of the site must be raised, requiring 2.2 million cubic yards of fill. The report also notes that liquefaction, a process that involves weakening of saturated soils during moments of stress—such as an earthquake—is a concern.
Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, whose district includes the land that could house the new prison, criticized the commission’s process, saying it excluded residents and elected representatives.
“Are we really doing our jobs as representatives when we ignore the complaints and needs of those in our communities? The west side has not been silent,” Hollins said in a prepared statement. “I have not been silent. I will not be silent. This is a bad decision that will only further sidetrack neighborhoods that are on their way to cultural and economic success.”
The Salt Lake City site is also located near sensitive wetlands, which has prompted talk of a lawsuit from Salt Lake City officials.
Luke Garrott, chairman of the Salt Lake City Council, criticized the commission for continuing to “place the interests of the few who line their pockets at taxpayer expense above those of the public.” Garrott, who is running for Salt Lake City mayor, urged Mayor Ralph Becker to challenge the move in court.
Becker and Councilman James Rogers, whose district includes the possible prison site, said the city will resist the move. “Salt Lake City will continue to fight today’s decision, and we look forward to working together with Salt Lake City’s legislators to pursue all options to prevent the prison being built,” Becker and Rogers said in a joint statement.