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MANY IN TINY TOWN DON’T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT FROM PRISON

SHARE MANY IN TINY TOWN DON’T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT FROM PRISON

On one side of U.S. 89 in central Sanpete County is the peaceful, friendly town of Gunnison; on the other - next to the cemetery and below the trash dump - is the new state prison.

Most people in Gunnison look up at the squat, stone compound across the highway and see jobs, a boon to their slumping agricultural economy. Some see trouble."A lot of people just don't know what the impact will be, and I guess it's the not knowing that worries them," said Kim Pickett, who has a hardware and farm equipment business on the town's Main Street.

Dr. Bruce King, a Gunnison veterinarian whose work takes him to farms and ranches throughout the county, said people are most concerned about the effect the prison will have on their rural lifestyle, schools and taxes.

Some people fear Gunnison could become a prison town, a San Quentin, a Marion, a Leavenworth or a Point-of-the-Mountain, a community known for the criminals it houses and nothing else.

"People don't want to be identified that way," said King, "but if it secures their livelihood, it's a small price to pay."

Gunnison was one of three sites considered by the state for the new maximum-security prison. It was selected over Price and Monticello partly for its more central location, partly for political reasons, but mostly for its overwhelming support of the project.

At one meeting attended by more than 4,000 county residents, only 10 signed a petition opposing the prison.

When their competitors approached the state with prison sites free of charge, Gunnison and Sanpete County gave up some of their land and also bought a privately owned parcel to match those offers.

"We had decided from the very beginning that if we were going to go after it, we should have a consensus," said King, who was then president of Gunnison's economic development committee.

And they went after it with their eyes wide open. Community leaders visited prisons in rural areas in California, Colorado and Oregon. Residents attended planning meetings en masse, bombarding corrections officials with questions about everything from the prison's physical appearance to the conduct of people visiting inmates.

King, who now serves on the Department of Corrections Advisory Council, said, "A lot of homework went into the decision to support the prison. People live in southern Utah because they enjoy the rural lifestyle, and they don't want anything to disturb that."

But they also recognized a need to breathe new life into their economy, he said. "We wanted to have the best place to live and to be able to make a living too."

Scott Johnson concurs with that assessment. He moved to Sanpete County 14 years ago because he thought it was a good place to raise a family. To make a living, he took a coal-mining job in Emery County, commuting four hours a day.

"I always thought I would stay here, make my life here, but I got so tired of commuting that far that I began talking to my wife about leaving," Johnson said. "As badly as I wanted to stay, I don't think I could have done it any longer."

Then, the state announced it had selected Gunnison as the site of its new prison. Seizing the opportunity, Johnson quit his job and went back to school to study corrections. He was one of the first of the more than 50 area residents who were hired to work at the facility.

Ironically, he has been commuting even farther than before. He is working as a Corrections supervisor at the prison at Draper until the Gunnison facility opens.

A father of four, Johnson said prison jobs will make it possible for a lot of young families to stay in the county. "It has helped the area a lot already," he said.

However, some Sanpete County residents said expectations of an economic boom from the construction phase of the project did not materialize.

"A fair amount of people got work, but there were not as many construction jobs as we had hoped for," King said, attributing part of that to union control of certain building trades. "We don't have union people, so it was hard for them to hire locals. On the brick work, for example, all of them were union, so they all came in from the Wasatch Front."

Picket said the community is hoping for a better showing when the prison becomes operational. It is then expected to pump more than $6 million a year into the local economy.

At the same time, however, there are financial worries.

Gunnison High School's optimum capacity is about 45 students per grade. It currently has classes as large as 80 students, and an influx of more than 200 prison workers and their families is certain to overload the educational system. Gunnison may need a middle school to relieve some of the pressure.

Community and corrections officials believe Gunnison's water system can handle the increased demand from the first phase of the new prison, but just barely. When the prison reaches its maximum operational level, it will have an inmate and staff population twice that of Gunnison itself.

The water and sewer system will have to be upgraded, and the debate over how to finance those needs has already begun.

Another local worry is public safety. Johnson said his neighbors often ask him about prison security. "There is always a fear about that, but when I tell them how it's handled and describe the security, they feel much better about it," he said.

A more widespread concern is that inmates' visitors may cause problems. King said residents have asked corrections officials and people in other prison towns a lot of questions about prison visitors.

"What they told us is that there isn't much moving around. Parents and wives of inmates aren't going to pick up and move to be close to them," King said. "And just because they have a relative in prison, it doesn't make them bad people."

Visitors will probably stop in town for a hamburger and a tank of gas and then be on their way, he said. "I don't see where that will hurt anything. Some people here think it will."

Johnson said he has been watching the local reaction and has found that most people are not sure what to expect from the prison on the hillside.

"We know that things around here will change, but we don't know how much," Johnson said. "We're waiting to see how much."