SALT LAKE CITY — There's not enough undeveloped land at the Utah State Prison in Draper to build a new prison on-site without running into problems, according to the preliminary results of an assessment of the site quietly started in the past two weeks.
"I guess it was kind of hard to ignore people who, time after time after time, said, 'Just rebuild it in Draper,'" state consultant Bob Nardi told the Deseret News on Thursday about looking at putting the $550 million project at Point of the Mountain.
And Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission needs to consider keeping the prison in Draper, but not if that means taking a "Band-Aid approach" to building a new facility.
"We have some additional ground, but the question is going to be: Can we build a new prison while the existing prison is there in its location? Is there enough room?" the governor said Thursday during his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7.
"What we don't want to have is a new prison that's really a Band-Aid approach," Herbert said, rather than a functioning facility. "If we cannot do it on-site and get to the end result we want, there ought to be a new site, a better site."
Commission co-chairman Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said consultants took "a very quick look" at rebuilding on-site in Draper, but that doesn't change the commission's legislative mandate to find a new location.
"If the Legislature wants to move us in a different direction, that's certainly theirs' and the governor's prerogative," Stevenson said.
The commission is expected to make a recommendation to the Legislature by mid-August.
The commission is set to choose between sites in Salt Lake City, west of Salt Lake City International Airport; in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County; and in Grantsville near the Wal-Mart distribution center in Tooele County.
Past consultant studies prepared for the commission dealt with the cost of maintaining the aging buildings on the Draper prison site that date back to 1951 compared with building a new facility elsewhere.
Nardi said consultants took it upon themselves to do the analysis of building on the Draper site. But he said their work has been set aside in the preliminary stages to focus on an in-depth study of the four sites that was already underway.
"We've never finalized it. We've never really thought it was something we'd be making public," the New Jersey-based senior vice president of Louis Berger said. "If called upon, we would do something more."
What Nardi said he found by studying aerial maps online was that there's about 275 acres of contiguous undeveloped land on the site, but a new 4,000-bed facility would require about 360 acres, including parking lots and patrol roads.
"We came away with the sense this would be a real, real challenge," Nardi said, because buildings would have to be torn down during construction while continuing to operate the prison.
Besides being disruptive, building on-site would also be "enormously costly and far more time-consuming," Nardi said, estimating it would add at least 25 percent to the cost.
Other issues, he said, include power transmission lines running through the site.
"It should be rather obvious it's not a feasible approach," Nardi said.
The governor said he's not taking a position on where the new prison should be built. But he said the prison should not be relocated just so the nearly 700 acres there can be developed.
"The motivation behind moving the prison ought not to be just the economic development aspects of freeing up that land," Herbert said. "That may be a secondary issue. It's certainly important. But the primary reason is we need a new prison."
His comments come as House members on both sides of the prison relocation issue are asking legislative staff to review a consultant's estimate that the property could have an $1.8 billion economic impact once developed.
House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, co-chairman of the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission, said that estimate is likely too low because it does not take into account bringing high-tech jobs to Utah's "Silicon Slopes" along I-15.
But Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, had already called the estimate of economic impact "exorbitant." Last session, he tried unsuccessfully to have a bill heard requiring the commission to consider rebuilding the facility on the Draper site.
Herbert said it's not clear how much moving the prison would impact the economy.
"The economic benefit, I think, is just more gravy on the potential of moving the prison. You can speculate on the highs and lows," the governor said. "I expect it could be a signficant upside over the next generation."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the governor has put himself in good position politically on the prison relocation issue, which has generated significant public opposition.
"He's played this politically about as well as he can," Burbank said, by continuing to talk about the option of keeping the prison in Draper "knowing full well that's an unlikley outcome given the way the Legislature has structured the process."