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With professional masons at work around them, Utah's Freemasons on Saturday ceremonially laid the cornerstone of the Salt Palace Convention and Community Center.

John Elwell Jr., grand master of the Grand Lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons of Utah, presided over the ceremony, conducted according to the ancient customs of the Freemasons, an order with origins to the building of temples in the Holy Land and cathedrals in Europe.Prayers on the building's behalf were offered by Ken Newschwander, the Masons' grand chaplain.

Though the new Salt Palace will hardly be a religious shrine, local leaders say it will be one of the most important edifices in the state.

"It serves not only an economic purpose but as a gathering place for our citizens,' said Jim Bradley, chairman of the Salt Lake County Commission, which participated in Saturday's ceremony.

As part of the cornerstone laying, the Masons have buried a time capsule containing paraphernalia of the Masons and contemporary Utah. Some of the items include:

- Copies of Saturday's Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune.

- A scoresheet showing the result of the 1994 BYU-Utah football game, which Utah won 34-31.

- Masonic fraternal caps.

- A 40-pound nut used to anchor the Acord Arena in the old Salt Palace.

- Tickets from a Utah Jazz game played in the Acord Arena.

- A baseball cap belonging to former Jazz coach Frank Layden.

In an interview prior to the cornerstone ceremony, County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi said the project is basically on schedule and within budget.

Expected to be completed by the end of 1995, the new center has already attracted $200 million worth of bookings into 1997, Horiuchi said.

Contractor for the project is Hughes-Hunt, a joint venture involving a local firm (Hughes) and a national firm (Hunt).

Low bid on the project was $70 million, but commissioners say the cost could exceed $85 million.

The project is being financed with $15 million from the state, $15 million from Salt Lake City and bonds that will be repaid from hotel, restaurant and rental-car taxes.

Horiuchi said the project will be completed without a tax increase.

The new Salt Palace will have 256,000 square feet of exhibit space, including a 36,000 square-foot ballroom with a seating capacity of 4,500. Also, 54,000 square feet will be available for meetings, providing 53 rooms in various configurations.