SALT LAKE CITY — Leonard Andrews, a computer programmer who works just a short distance from one of five proposed prison sites, wasn't impressed Thursday by a display intended to show how a new facility would blend into a community.
"I don't care what the prison looks like. I care about what it does. The prison is still going to be a prison," Andrews said as he stood in front of a booth at the Prison Relocation Commission's first open house, held at the Utah State Fairpark.
Andrews said putting the 4,000-bed prison on the site west of Salt Lake City International Airport near I-80 and 7200 West, close to the industrial park where his office is located, would stall economic development in the area.
"I think the prison would create some kind of risk. It just seems like this type of facility is something people wouldn't be as happy developing commercial properties around," he said.
A resident of the westside Poplar Grove neighborhood, Andrews was among more than 200 people who attended the event that provided information about relocating the Utah State Prison from Draper.
The other sites under consideration for a new state prison are in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County, and near the Wal-Mart Distribution Center in Grantsville and adjacent to the Miller Motorsports Park outside Grantsville in Tooele County.
Similar open houses are scheduled at Grantsville High School on May 28 and at Frontier Middle School in Eagle Mountain on June 2. Each is expected to last from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., just as the Salt Lake open house did.
For Melissa Bradley, a stay-at-home mom from Eagle Mountain and a member of the Keep It In Draper group opposed to the move, the only place for the prison is on the nearly 700-acre Point of the Mountain site where it now sits.
"I definitely came to listen to what they have to say. I also came with my own opinions," Bradley said after visiting a booth describing the financial benefits a new $550 million prison can bring to a community, including construction jobs.
"This is a huge taxpayer expense," she said, adding she would be against moving the prison even if it might not end up in her backyard. "I feel like they have been given a blank check."
At a booth manned by state Department of Corrections officials, Craig Burr, division director of programming, said while people were polite as he described the benefits of a new facility, he probably didn't change many minds.
"No. Not at this table," Burr said. Most people who stopped by supported a new prison, he said, but took issue with where it might go. Many asked about keeping it in Draper.
"As corrections, we don't care where," Burr said, as long as it is a new facility that can offer better opportunities to rehabilitate prisoners so they don't return. "That's not our decision. That's a legislative decision. They're the ones making the call."
Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, who mingled with the crowd along with other city leaders opposed to the move, called for a statewide referendum in 2016 on whether the prison should be relocated.
"I think that we should take the vote to the citizens because not only is it an impact on whatever municipality it goes to, it's statewide. It affects everybody," Rogers said.
Interns from Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's office passed out anti-prison buttons and flyers at the entrance to the open house. The mayor said he wanted to make sure attendees know why Salt Lake "is a terrible site for a new prison."
Besides the opportunity to watch videos, read brochures and talk with corrections officials, legislative staff and consultants, participants could submit questions in writing to a panel that included the legislative commission's co-chairmen.
The two-hour question and answer session marked the first time commission members responded directly to the public. A Salt Lake police officer in uniform stood by the stage as questions were read by a moderator.
There were no outbursts other than applause for some questions, although there were loud gasps when Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, was asked about the possibility of a referendum vote on moving the prison.
"This is a republic that we live in, and your representatives have already voted," Stevenson, a co-chairman of the commission, said. He later stressed he had "zero" to gain financially from the relocation.
A question about rebuilding the prison on the existing Draper site drew applause. The commission's other co-chairman, Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said that wasn't practical for a number of reasons, including because the area is an economic hub.
"It's not good for the taxpayers of Utah to build a prison there, and it's not good for the economy," Wilson said. He said like the money spent readying the state to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, investing in a prison move will pay off over time.
Moving the prison will free up the prime real estate located along what's being called Utah's "Silicon Slopes" technology corridor. Stevenson suggested one use for the property would be as an extension of the University of Utah's research park.
The commission charged with finding a new site for the prison is expected to make a recommendation by the end of August. Gov. Gary Herbert has said he will then call lawmakers into special session to vote on the site.