Here’s a possible scene from a legislative hearing room at the Utah Capitol, sometime around 2050:
House Speaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, it has become clear to me that we need to move the obsolete state prison from its current site. I’ve invited the head of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development here to explain why.”
Head of GOED: “A number of large corporations have expressed interest in locating in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant. It is a prime spot, with easy access to I-80, a major international airport and rail connections to the rest of the Wasatch Front. These corporations would bring in lots of jobs and money, but the prison is standing in the way.”
In much of the United States, new prisons are sold as an economic stimulus tool for struggling rural areas. That is a foolish notion. As some economic studies have noted, the gains are mostly imaginary.
University of Missouri economist Thomas Johnson calculated several years ago that prisons don’t spin off a lot of positive industries the way that, say, an auto manufacturer might lead various suppliers to locate nearby. Prisons don’t link themselves to the rest of the productive economy.
Simply put, prisons are necessary for punishing and rehabilitating those judged unworthy to enjoy freedom with the rest of us. We should approach them with feelings of obligation and compassion. We shouldn’t expect them to anchor an economy.
The good news is this hasn’t been a concern in Utah. Despite all the wrangling in recent years over whether and where to move the prison, no one I know of has argued that the prison itself is an economic generator.
And yet, despite logic, that may be exactly what happens with the new prison.
More than a year ago, I noted how Salt Lake City leaders had, for decades, talked about luring development to the northwest quadrant, but they always lacked the will and the money (two closely related things) to extend water and sewage pipes and build the necessary roads.
Prison relocation takes care of that. This week, Mayor Jackie Biskupski unveiled a two-year plan to extend utilities and build roads to the new prison site, at a projected cost of $90 million. The city can do this because more than half of that, $47 million, will be paid by the state.
My guess is the city will gladly pay the difference, knowing all those pipes and roads will make its latest master plan for the area — focused entirely on light industrial, commercial development — actually turn into something, unlike the many previous plans.
Those earlier plans all called for neighborhoods and homes. A 2009 version envisioned 70,000 people out there. But conventional wisdom says few people want to live near a prison, so the new plan leaves all of that out.
That wisdom doesn’t jibe with the pricey subdivisions near the Draper prison, however. Future city leaders may bend the master plan to the demands of people who want to live in the northwest quadrant, after all.
But either way, viable, relatively inexpensive land so close to a major city and a major airport is bound to be considered prime real estate eventually.
The city can’t be blamed for this. Its leaders didn’t ask for the prison and are correct to use it to their advantage. But City Council Chairman James Rogers stated the obvious when he peered into the future and told the Deseret News he doesn’t know of any other city in America that has so much empty land with which to attract business.
“We talk about Silicon Slopes,” he said, referring to the area around the current prison site in Draper. “That’s only 700 acres. This is 3,600 acres of developable land.”
I don’t know how my mythical meeting in 2050 might turn out. Maybe this time some forward-thinking lawmaker will stand up and remind his colleagues that prisons are among the most important facilities a government can build and operate; that proper rehabilitation involves the help of a supportive surrounding community; and that these obligations matter at least as much as economic development.
We’ll just have to wait to see.