ERDA, Tooele County — While the spotlight of the Utah Inland Port Authority debate has been shining on the political and legal fights between the state, Salt Lake City leaders and environmental protesters, a group of developers and politicians about 30 miles west have concocted their own idea.
What if — instead of building a central inland port hub in a 16,000-acre area west of Salt Lake City International Airport that city leaders are still fighting as a grab for land and power by the state — the port authority could consider building the beating heart of its operation in rural Tooele County?
After all, that’s where county leaders are more willing to play ball.
Months ago, Tooele County commissioners and developers began cobbling together a proposal. The product turned out to be a 10,716-acre jurisdiction of mostly open farmlands in Tooele County that could be developed to bring rail lines, a massive warehouse district, and perhaps transloading facilities to create a hub of truck and train connections to maximize Utah’s foothold in the global import and export economy.
That’s according to a series of emails obtained by the Deseret News between Tooele County commissioners, county economic development officials and developers with The Romney Group, a real estate investment company that is already working to develop a 900-acre business park across from the Utah Motorsports Park and Deseret Peak Complex in Erda.
After they initially outlined a 12,000-acre jurisdiction — which included the Tooele Valley Airport, owned by Salt Lake City International Airport — county leaders and developers downsized the jurisdiction area to a little over 10,700 acres, including parcels Anthon Stauffer, chief investment officer for The Romney Group, said he got a green light from property owners interested in being a part of the project area.
In a letter to port authority leaders, the Tooele County Commission officially requested Tooele County be “considered as a primary location for the Utah Inland Port Authority.”
“Presently, there are private investors prepared to develop a substantial amount of property in the county, and with the right investment from the state of Utah through the Inland Port Authority, we believe these development efforts will further grow the role of the state within the global supply chain,” the letter states.
“Our request to the board is that Tooele County be considered as a potential hub for the inland port and that our team be given an opportunity to present the details of our plan to you as soon as possible,” the letter continues.
Or, if inland port officials don’t bite at the central hub proposal, Tooele County leaders also want to be considered as a “satellite” location — or a spoke in the “hub and spoke” model in which the current Salt Lake City jurisdiction would serve as the main hub for distribution, rail, truck and air connections, and Tooele County would play a role as a smaller warehouse and distribution touchpoint.
‘What the heck’s going on?’
Inland port opponents are disturbed by the Tooele County pitch, accusing county commissioners, developers and Utah Inland Port Authority officials of “backroom dealing.”
“There are lots and lots of questions that need to be answered,” said Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer of the group Stop the Polluting Port. “I would urge everyone in Tooele County to contact their county commissioners and say, ‘What the heck’s going on, and when are we the public going to get information about what you all are up to?’”
But Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne said the proposal is only a concept — and hasn’t been brought to the public for discussion yet because Tooele County leaders and developers are still in an “administrative” phase to determine the project’s viability. And since these discussions, which took place last summer, they haven’t heard back from port authority officials on whether they’d seriously consider the idea.
“We’re just in the back of the class, raising our hand and saying, ‘If you’re giving extra credit and your star, front-row kid isn’t interested in it, we’ll take it,’” Milne said. “Or if your star quarterback doesn’t want to play, there’s plenty of us who want to get off the bench and get some game time. We’d like to be taken seriously.”
To Milne, a Tooele County port would be a boon for the rural county, where good jobs are scarce and the tax base could flourish with high-quality commercial development made possible by infrastructure a port authority project area could fund.
“We’re raising our hand saying, ‘We’d really like to have a part in this economic boom, and if your star player is throwing fits and acting like a diva, throw the rest of us in,’” Milne said, referring to Salt Lake City’s legal battle with the port authority.
But Ginger Chinn, the port authority’s director of business development, says it’s far too early to say whether a Tooele County inland port jurisdiction — either a central hub or a satellite location — would be viable, noting the Utah Inland Port Authority has received an outpouring of interest from many other rural counties in the state.
“They’re a little farther down the tracks than we are,” Chinn said of Tooele County leaders and developers. “It’s way too early in the process for us to say, ‘Yeah, that’s the plan, we’re moving forward.’”
As port authority officials have been spending the last several months developing a strategic business plan (expected to be unveiled this spring), Chinn said she’s been visiting counties all across the state to visit their proposed project areas, whether it be in Tooele County, Weber County, Box Elder County, Iron County, Beaver County, Sevier County, Carbon County or Emery County.
Chinn said she’s visited the area in Tooele County, but “we have not made any decisions” on whether a central hub — or a satellite proposal of the about 1,400 acres The Romney Group is eying for development — is viable as a port authority project area.
But, that might not matter.
“My initial thought is they’re going to create some manufacturing in this community whether the inland port existed or not,” Chinn said.
The case for a Tooele County port
Regardless of whether it’s an 11,000-acre central hub or a smaller-scale satellite project area, Stauffer said it would be a “great thing for the economic benefit” of the Tooele Valley, which struggles with tax revenue.
“That valley is on the verge of becoming a better community, but residential houses don’t cover their costs, so they’ve had to continue to keep raising taxes out there,” he said. “Their only hope is to have some type of large, commercial, industrial development that would generate tax base that will allow their schools to grow sustainably without putting taxes on the residents.”
The unincorporated Tooele County area known as Erda is made up of mostly undeveloped land, a business park area that has some warehouses, and rural residences east and west of the Tooele Valley Airport that are home to residents who enjoy a quiet country lifestyle. When developers sought to bring apartments and condos in a 246-acre development called Skywalk near the airport, residents fought the project and brought it to court.
Stauffer said The Romney Group isn’t envisioning any houses as part of the project area, which includes the Skywalk property. He said they’re confident Tooele County’s workforce, which is already growing because of housing booms happening in the area, would benefit from the “thousands” of jobs the port would bring.
Even if the port authority accepted a nearly 11,000-acre proposed area, Stauffer said there’s no way warehouse or other port development would take up that entire area. Rather, the larger area could benefit from the infrastructure the port project could bring.
“What you’re going to see is an area that has little infrastructure in it that becomes a viable economic driver for that valley,” he said.
He argued a Tooele County port would be a good alternative to Salt Lake City — an area near I-80 where trucks could bypass the heart of traffic congestion on I-15.
Plus, the Utah Department of Transportation is already beginning construction on the Midvalley Highway, a stretch that will connect state Route 138 near Sheep Lane in Erda to I-80, meant to alleviate traffic coming in and out of the Tooele Valley.
“There’s really some benefits to the Tooele Valley that no one is talking about,” Stauffer said.
House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who has sponsored inland port-related legislation on Capitol Hill and is a member of the Utah Inland Port Authority board, welcomed Tooele County’s proposal.
“I have no qualms with people working with county commissioners and people within those areas if they want to create something or make a proposal,” Gibson said. “I’m sure the board will take it up and listen.”
However, Gibson said it’s “not the most ideal” location, over 30 miles west of the international airport, with mainly east-west interstate connections and “not a lot” of north-south connections. However, it could bring some “relief” to I-15 congestion, he acknowledged.
“I’m not going to say ‘no’ because I don’t know what their proposal would be,” Gibson said. “But I’m just one member of the board.”
Seed blasted Tooele County commissioners for hashing out the initial plans in the “backroom” — which she said has been the pattern of inland port dealings from the onset.
“We just have the sketchiest idea,” she said. “The lack of information has been a cause for concern for these past two years.”
And even as a vocal critic of the Salt Lake City inland port, Seed said she still has “grave concern” about a Tooele County location, noting the two valleys share an airshed.
“Pollution that’s generated in the Tooele Valley, we can see it,” she said. “It all merges together and creates harm for all of us who breath the air.”
She worries developers “want it all” — whether it be a central hub location or satellite location, it doesn’t matter, they just want to develop undeveloped land and get a tax break to do it.
“The big question for us is what does do to our quality of life,” she said, whether it be worse air quality, loss of open space, increased traffic or loss of wild habitat, “all the things that make Utah a beautiful place to live.”
Plus, rural residents of Tooele County should have a say, she said.
“This is going to have an enormous impact on the people who already live in the Tooele Valley,” she said. “Have they had a chance to engage in this conversation about something that would change their lives forever?”
Milne defends commissioners’ talks with developers, saying they were early discussions that would determine the viability of the project. No developer application has been submitted to the Tooele County Commission, he said. And if it were to move forward, Milne promised a public discussion.
As for impact to the community and the airshed, Milne said he shares those same concerns and is passionate about mitigating it.
“We in Tooele County are already sucking on the tailpipes of the Wasatch Front,” Milne said. “Tooele County already sees that pollution. We see it come across the lake and into our beautiful valley every day. We don’t need to be lectured about air quality. We get it.”
Milne said the difference Tooele County has with Salt Lake City is his fellow commissioners would be “positive and willing partners” and would work to build what Jack Hedge, the port authority executive director, has said he wants to build: a green and sustainable port.
Asked about possibly giving up land use and taxing authority (the crux of the Salt Lake City court case against the port authority), Milne said Tooele County would work on an interlocal agreement or letter of intent that would lay out “assurances” that Tooele County elected leaders would still have a say in the project area’s future.