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Opponents of moving state prison say there's room to build on-site

Current Utah State Prison location Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, in Draper Utah.
Current Utah State Prison location Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, in Draper Utah.
Scott G Winterton,

SALT LAKE CITY — Opponents of relocating the Utah State Prison from Draper on Friday criticized a state consultant's conclusion that it's not feasible to rebuild on-site as an attempt to counter increasing pressure on lawmakers not to make the move.

"They are feeling the heat," said Heidi Balderree of Keep It In Draper, a group pushing for the prison to be rebuilt at Point of the Mountain. "People are seeing through the propaganda."

Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, said he was "ticked" when he saw reports that a key member of the team of consultants hired by the state, Bob Nardi, had taken a cursory look at the Draper site and determined there wasn't enough room to build.

Nardi told the Deseret News he determined there are only about 275 acres of contiguous undeveloped land available on the site, short of the 360 acres needed to build a new 4,000-bed prison.

"It should be rather obvious it's not a feasible approach," Nardi said, warning the $550 million price tag would jump at least 25 percent and prison operations would be disrupted if the project were attempted in phases.

But Cox, an architect, said there's plenty of space to replace some of the prison's oldest buildings that are grouped together on the nearly 700-acre site before tearing them down.

Then, Cox said, additional facilities could be constructed to accommodate inmates in the remaining prison buildings before tearing those down, too, allowing some 180 acres to be sold for development.

"You can create a win-win," Cox said. "There's no reason it can't be master-planned in such a way that, yes, Draper still has the prison, but they also have the additional economic development they're looking for."

Lawmakers voted to move the prison after a January 2014 study by Texas-based MGT of America showed the state stood to gain an annual economic benefit of $1.8 billion by developing the Draper site.

The Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission was charged with finding a new location for the prison and has narrowed the choice to four sites in Salt Lake City, in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County, and in Grantsville in Tooele County.

The commission's co-chairman, House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said there's no reason for Draper to be in the mix.

"The only time people started talking about rebuilding it in Draper was when people from those communities that might get a prison realized the message, 'We don't want a prison in our backyard,'" wasn't working, he said.

Wilson, who has said he believes the economic impact of attracting high-tech jobs to the so-called "Silicon Slopes" along I-15 have been underestimated, said it would be "foolish" to build a new prison there.

"The fact of the matter is, the only way you pay for a new prison is to sell and develop that property in Draper," Wilson said. "So what's going to happen is we're going to get this done."

Cox said he hopes lawmakers will reject whatever new site the commission ends up recommending later this summer and approve a bill he is having drafted to study the Draper site more thoroughly.

But if, as expected, the prison relocation vote comes in a special session of the Legislature called by Gov. Gary Herbert, the governor has "no intention" of adding Cox's bill to the agenda, his spokesman, Marty Carpenter, said.

"We have every reason to believe the ongoing process with be thorough and produce a clear recommendation for the best location for the new prison facility," Carpenter said.

The governor said again Thursday that lawmakers should consider rebuilding on the Draper site, but not if that means taking a "Band-Aid approach" to a new prison. Herbert also said economic development should not be the prime reason for a move.

Carpenter said how that's determined is "a good question for the (commission). We expect their final report, should it recommend a site other than Draper, to include an explanation of why they didn't choose to leave it on the current site."

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said he was surprised there wasn't a detailed look at the Draper site long ago.

"It's very reasonable to think this should have been a first step," Karpowitz said. "I think if there is public pressure to reconsider the Draper site more fully, then an open and transparent process might mean taking a harder look at the site."

Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers said he believes there won't be a serious look at rebuilding on the Draper site because "it will show it can be done," and that's not what proponents of developing the property want to hear.

"They're dead set on moving the prison," said Rogers, whose council district includes the site west of Salt Lake City International Airport that's been called a front-runner for the prison. "I think they're going to stick to their guns."

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