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Utah Inland Port’s new boss says state has a chance to build a green, technological ‘legacy’ unlike anything in the U.S.

Jack Hedge says controversy doesn’t ‘scare’ him, welcomes all sides to sit down and give him ‘ideas’

Jack Hedge, the new executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority, is pictured at the offices of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019.
Jack Hedge, the new executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority, is pictured at the offices of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019.
Steve Griffin

SALT LAKE CITY — Jack Hedge says his draw to Utah — and why he envisions what is possible for a Utah Inland Port — can be boiled down to the same thing: A “reverence” for both industry and environmental beauty.

And because of that, he says his sights are set high. So high, in fact, he believes Utah can set a new bar for technological and sustainable high-tech advances in logistics and port development — not just in all of the U.S. but even the world.

“Honestly, it can be done here better in Utah than anywhere else,” Hedge told the Deseret News in a recent interview. “There’s a unique combination of industriousness, but also this reverence for the landscape, for the environment, for the natural beauty of the state. And that’s a pretty unique combination.”

Hedge, 60, speaks with a hint of a Texan accent. He comes originally from the Lone Star State, but he has also lived in Washington and California — states where he’s worked in the business of logistics for nearly 20 years, first at the Port of Tacoma, then at the Port of Los Angeles.

The day the Utah Inland Port Authority board hired him to be the agency’s executive director, Hedge said the first thing he did was buy a ski season pass.

“And then I went and turned in my resignation at the Port of Los Angeles,” Hedge said, laughing.

As a skier and an expert in logistics — or, to put it simply, moving goods from one place to another in strategic ways — Hedge said he was drawn not only to Utah’s beauty but also what he sees as a true potential for the state to become the “crossroads of the West.”

“Utah is uniquely positioned to be the next step in the revolution of transportation and logistics for handling freight movement in the U.S.,” he said.

In the other words, Hedge sees Utah as a blank slate with the existing infrastructure to start a new “legacy” — a centennial project to usher in the future of ports and moving goods for the next “50 to 100 years,” he said.

And he says he’s not exaggerating.

“Rather than trying to fix the problems and the issues around these types of facilities that have been developed in the past, this is an opportunity to develop a whole new way of doing things, a whole new way of looking at the supply chain, a whole new way of looking at freight movement and logistics — and how those things look for the next 50 to 100 years instead of trying to fix the problems of the past,” he said. “And that is really, really exciting.”

Can Utah build a green inland port?

Hedge said it’s “absolutely” possible the build an inland port — or a global distribution hub of train, truck and air connections to maximize manufacturing, imports and exports for the entire state — that is so unlike anything seen in the U.S. and one that perhaps could rival technologies currently being used in ports in Europe, including the Port of Rotterdam, where there’s permeable pavements, solar power, wind energy, plug-ins for electric trucks, electric trains and more.

Hedge said Utah has an opportunity to create something that’s never been done before in the U.S. — where inland ports, whether they’re on the coast and fed by ships or not, are seen as dirty, environmental disasters that bring miles of trains, concrete jungles, millions of square feet of shipping yards and transloading stations, and high truck traffic.

“Anything that we want to do at the Utah Inland Port Authority is going to be the most sustainable, forward-leaning, smart logistics facilities anywhere in the world,” Hedge said. “It’s going to be something the world is going to say, ‘That’s how we want to do it. That’s what we want to be.’

“That’s why I moved here,” Hedge said. “To have the opportunity to do that sort of thing. That’s what’s exciting, to be able to have that legacy.”

How? Hedge said it’s all about how the port authority uses its tax increment — or future property tax revenue that the Utah Inland Port Authority currently has the ability to capture from future growth in its 16,000-acre jurisdiction in west Salt Lake City. Unlike other areas in the U.S., the concept of a port authority is more common in Europe, he said, where a public agency can use tax increment to “drive” companies wanting to partner with the port to use new and innovative technology.

“It’s not ‘Oh, hey, come build your warehouses, here’s a tax credit,’” Hedge said. “It’s, ‘You’re going to use this tax increment for these specific types of things. ... If you want any of this money, your operation is going to have to be the latest and best technology. You’re going to have to use green building techniques, low-impact development technology. You’re going to have to agree to operate zero emissions trucks.’”

Or, Hedge even said the port authority could market itself as a “test bed” to companies wanting to test technology in the “real world,” such as Tesla’s electric trucks. Hedge noted those are all just examples, and it’s too soon to say exactly what policies the port authority board will pursue, but he believes Utah has the opportunity to push the boundaries.

“It’s incredible, the technological advances being made, but they need a place to try them out in the real world,” Hedge said. “Well, why not here?”

Controversy ‘doesn’t scare me’

Hedge’s vision — though he prefaces it by saying it’s extremely early in a yearslong process of planning that’s only just begun — comes at a time when port opponents concerned about its impact on the environment and the Wasatch Front’s already strained air quality have ramped up their opposition by disrupting board meetings and even storming the Salt Lake Chamber building last month, resulting in at times violent clashes with police.

But to Hedge, controversy is often “part of the deal” when it comes to port development — and he’s not deterred by the already vehement opposition to a Utah port.

“Any kind of big undertaking is going to have opposition,” he said. “It’s going to have people with questions and concerns and issues. It’s also going to have people with ideas and thoughts, and being a part of that is OK. It’s just what it takes to grow and progress.

“It doesn’t scare me,” Hedge said. “It’s appropriate. It’s expected. And, frankly, it ought to be embraced.”

Hedge has only been working at the Utah Inland Port Authority for about two months, after his hire was finalized in June.

He previously worked for the Port of Los Angeles as the director of cargo and industrial real estate from 2016 to 2019, where he handled development, leasing and asset management functions of the largest container port complex in North America, managing a $4 billion portfolio and more than $270 billion in cargo annually.

Hedge also worked for the Port of Los Angeles as director of the real estate division from 2012 to 2016. Before that, he worked as real estate and asset management for the Port of Tacoma from 2006 to 2012. Previously, he worked for companies including North American Energy Services, an operator of electric utility power generating facilities.

Hedge has a bachelor’s in business administration and international marketing from Texas A&M University.

The day the port authority board voted to hire him was the same day protesters crashed a port board meeting for a second time. One protester was arrested. Doing its best to ignore shouts and pounding on the door from the hallway, the board continued its business — including hiring Hedge after a nationwide search.

Amid controversy, Hedge said he and the port authority will still find a path forward. He said disrupted meetings aren’t going to stop him from meeting with people who want to talk with him, whether or not they’re supportive of the port. He said he welcomes input from anyone who wants to sit down and have a meeting with him.

“I don’t care what side of the issue you’re on. I want to hear your thoughts, I want to hear your concerns, I want to hear your ideas,” he said, tapping his finger on the table for emphasis. “And we just keep saying that to people, and we just keep listening to people. It’s going to continue to progress. It’s going to continue to move. We just stay after it.”

Hedge said he believes the port board hired him out of a national field of candidates because he values “integrity, thoughtfulness and stewardship” — all things he hopes will eventually bring “trust” to an agency that has had such a rocky start in the public eye.

“The proof actually will be in the pudding,” Hedge said. “I’m not asking for anybody to trust me. You have to earn the trust.”

Hedge pointed to a project he was involved in at the Port of Tacoma, when a former gunpowder facility was purchased by the port to be cleaned up and turned into a port facility. The area was surrounded by environmentally sensitive areas, and Hedge said he and his team put a conservation easement on more than half of the 1,500-acre area to protect a wetlands habitat area as a “buffer” between the logistics hub and the environment.

“I think that demonstrates a sincerity when I talk about stewardship,” Hedge said.

But how does he expect to gain trust when he works for an agency that was born out of political controversy — criticized from the first day it was created by the Utah Legislature as an unelected board that usurps city land use and taxing authority? Today, the entity remains locked in court in a lawsuit filed by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, contesting the authority’s constitutionality.

Hedge brushes off the lawsuit, saying he intends to continue his work with public outreach, meeting with anyone who will meet with him, and pushing forward with the early stages of developing a strategic plan that he says will take months.

“So let the politicians and lawyers fight about the lawsuit,” he said. “I’m going to keep pushing on the things I can push on. And let those chips fall where they may.”