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DRAPER — State officials on Friday were told now is the time to relocate the Utah State Prison to make way for development of its 700-acre property in Draper.
Thomas Mabey, CEO of Sahara, told the Prison Relocation Authority Committee that Utah is in a "perfect storm" of low interest rates, low construction costs and high economic development.
"The state has an incredible opportunity facing it," he said.
Committee members heard presentations from Mabey, representing Deseret Corrections Center, and Point West Ventures partners Robin Riggs and Al Mansell, as well as other representatives of the banking and construction industries. No official action was taken, but committee members appeared receptive to requesting project proposals as early as next month.
"The state has nothing to lose by putting out an RFP (request for proposal)," Mabey said, adding that if a plan was ultimately approved, a new 4,000- to 5,000-bed prison could be built in 24 months. A location for a new prison has not been identified.
Developers and state officials have long sought to free up the prison's more than 700 acres in Draper, considered a prime location for commercial and residential development. The committee, which has been meeting monthly since January, has until mid-2014 to request and review proposals and to make a recommendation to the governor on the project.
One committee member asked Mabey why it is necessary to build now, rather than wait for the expected life of prison buildings to run out. Mabey said the prison requires constant upkeep, and the facility will never reach a point where it has uniformly reached the end of its term.
"If you keep putting money into the prison, there's always going to be buildings with useful life left," he said.
Mansell also spoke to the urgency of the project and urged the committee to issue an RFP. He said the nation is currently seeing record low interest rates, making prison relocation and development more financially feasible.
"To me that has always been the urgency, to get something done while the costs are so low," he said. "I hope you will give the groups an opportunity to present to you exactly how they will do that."
His business partner, Riggs, also suggested that the prime location of the prison — near I-15, Bangerter Highway, TRAX commuter lines and equidistant to both University of Utah and Brigham Young University — offered limitless potential for the state and would generate revenue to offset the cost of relocation and construction.
Riggs also said that an efficient, state-of-the-art prison facility would cost less to run and would, in time, save the state money.
"It's the last great piece of (property) left on the Wasatch Front" Riggs said. "There's no question in our minds that now is the time to move the prison and to move the whole prison."
A 2005 study found it would cost taxpayers more than $300 million, the difference between the price of a new prison and the value of the land then. Since then, property values have dropped dramatically.
Before closing the meeting, committee director Gregg Buxton suggested to the committee that an RFP be issued in August in order to have time to receive and review proposals and present a plan to the governor before the upcoming legislative session.
Tom Patterson, executive director of the Utah Department Corrections, suggested that the committee meet with representatives of religious and community groups to discuss the non-financial aspects of moving the prison. He said the location of a replacement facility is important for rehabilitation purposes and that a new prison should not be placed "out of sight, out of mind."
"We talk too much about the economics," he said. "These are people that return back to us. What are we doing to help repair them?"
The committee previously visited just one potential site for a new prison, state-owned trust land in Rush Valley in Tooele County. Patterson continues to voice caution about moving away from population centers, which could cause a hardship to those trying to visit inmates.