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Hughes makes surprise pitch of inland port authority to Salt Lake City

City officials walk away uncertain about proposal for northwest Salt Lake

FILE - Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes speaks to the Utah House of Representatives Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Salt Lake City.
FILE - Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes speaks to the Utah House of Representatives Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City leaders walked into a meeting at the Utah Capitol with state leaders Thursday not knowing exactly what to expect other than it would be about the city's northwest quadrant.

When they walked away from that meeting, they did so with few words. And they weren't smiling.

For months, Salt Lake City officials have been bracing themselves for a turf battle with the state over the 3,000-acre area slated for development — an area long eyed for an inland port, a type of global trade hub in a prime location for rail, truck and air transport. Mayor Jackie Biskupski and members of the City Council have expressed fears the state would try to take control of the area.

Their suspicions appeared to have been confirmed at Thursday's meeting, when House Speaker Greg Hughes — in front of Salt Lake City leaders and dozens of others, including county officials, northwest quadrant landowners and other state leaders — pitched the idea of an "inland port authority," or a new governing body to oversee the area's development.

Hughes made his pitch with a PowerPoint presentation, casting photos of other large inland ports on screens in the House caucus room, and demonstrating with trade maps how the northwest quadrant is uniquely positioned with its proximity to I-15, I-80 and Salt Lake City International Airport to become a large global trading hub that could bring millions into the state's economy.

"What if we caught this vision and, unique to the state of Utah and its proximity to transportation infrastructure, we got ahead of this and did something in the Western United States that hasn't been done before?" Hughes said.

Most inland ports in the nation are located on the East and West coasts.

"The firepower in this room right now can make this happen," Hughes said. "We have everybody that we need right in this room right now to make something like this work."

Hughes emphasized that he doesn't see "any path forward unless it is one that is collaborative."

Both Val Hale, executive director of the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development, and Derek Miller, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah, spoke in favor of creating an inland port. Hale said Utah has the opportunity as a "blank slate" to "do something that's unlike anything else" and could call itself the "crossroads of the world."

It's not yet clear exactly what the "inland port authority" governing body would look like because the bill that would create it is still being drafted, said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who will be sponsoring the bill.

But, as Hughes made his pitch, he showed a slide titled: "Crossroads of the West Port Authority." The slide contained a box with a number of different organizations that represented positions on that authority board: Utah Senate, Utah House, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, World Trade Center Utah, a governor appointment, and others.

"I'm not sure that's the exact structure we'll use," Stevenson said when a reporter asked about the slideshow graphic after the meeting. He said he didn't know how many seats Salt Lake City would have on the board, noting that filing of the bill is likely a few weeks out.

Throughout Hughes' presentation, Salt Lake City officials remained silent. At the urging of Hughes to have a "candid conversation" about how to proceed with the inland port governing structure, Biskupski asked one question:

"Why do you think a bill is necessary?" the mayor asked.

Hughes said if the area is controlled in "silos" with different jurisdictions with different responsibilities, he would "lose confidence in the continuity" of the area's oversight as people "come and go from their elected positions." Hughes said without a governing board, the inland port's long-term development could be subject to the "political winds" as new state, county and city leaders are elected.

Biskupski's crossed her arms while she listened to Hughes.

At the end of the meeting, Biskupski said "this information that we're hearing for the first time is helpful." Though she added it will be important for the city to get a better idea of what the port authority's jurisdictional boundaries would be. The mayor also said she thought it was "unfortunate" that state leaders want this done this session.

"If that bill is actually necessary, that can be done in a special session," she said.

City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said the state's plans were "news to us," and she would need time to mull the proposal with the rest of the council. Only Mendenhall, Councilman Charlie Luke and Councilman Derek Kitchen attended the meeting.

Councilman James Rogers, who represents the city's west side and has a been a vocal opponent of state involvement in the northwest quadrant, did not attend.

"I think we may be the few in the room who walked in not knowing what was going to happen next," Mendenhall said. "There's a lot for us to discuss."

Biskupski declined a request for further comment on her way out of the meeting. Mendenhall told a reporter that city officials had no idea what Hughes was planning on discussing other than it would be related to the northwest quadrant.

"There's a lot to chew on, that's for sure," Kitchen said.

But the state may not need Salt Lake City's blessing to move forward on the creation of the port authority. In an interview after the meeting, Stevenson said he believes it likely that the bill will pass this year.

"You saw the players in the room," he said "Will it get done this session? I think so."

Meanwhile, a land deal involving the northwest quadrant and the potential inland port is already in progress. The Deseret News first reported Tuesday that the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration is in conversations with Suburban Land Reserve, a real estate arm of the LDS Church, about cleaning up a roughly 770-acre site of the old landfill, located north of I-80 and west of 5600 West.

Stevenson said that land deal is "part of this process."

"You couldn't do anything out there without including the landfill," he said, adding that any "clean up" of the area would be "a process developed by this board."

David Ure, director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, confirmed Tuesday the agency is "working out agreements" with Suburban Land Reserve regarding the old landfill site, but he declined to elaborate on those discussions citing confidentiality agreements.

He did say, however, the agency intends to clean up the landfill site for development, but he stopped short of confirming it would be for an inland port, noting that negotiations are ongoing.

When pressed again for more details on the status of the land deal Thursday, Ure declined to comment.