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Committee steps up search for new state prison location

By Lisa Riley Roche | Posted - Jun 20th, 2014 @ 7:52am

SALT LAKE CITY — Within the next 30 days, the state plans to begin circulating requirements for a new prison in selected communities in the hopes of finding a site before the start of the 2015 Legislature in January.

Just what that criteria will be and what communities will be targeted, however, is yet to be determined by members of the Prison Relocation Commission, who discussed on Thursday the timeline for replacing the Utah State Prison in Draper.

"We've got to move forward," said the commission's chairman, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton. "If we have to, we'll slow down. But our objective is to come back to the legislative session with a site or sites and the cost."

A commission member, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, expressed concerns that there are still many issues to be decided before starting the search, including whether the state is looking to build a single new facility.

Hutchings said he wants to make sure the work of a subgroup on penal reform that he's leading is considered. The group's intent is ultimately to reduce the number of inmates, including through treatment programs that could affect what's needed in a new prison.

"I guess I'm just a little nervous, or I'd like to be put on notice we're pretty much wrapped up here," Hutchings said. "I'm not saying I don't want to move quickly … but we're going from 30,000 feet to 10 feet in 30 days."

Stevenson, head of the site selection subgroup, said work will start next week to narrow the area that will be considered. He called the timetable aggressive, but he said he believes it can be met.

Already, Stevenson said, he has a stack of potential sites submitted from around the state. "There are a lot of places we could go," he said, but many are too remote to be serious contenders.

After the meeting, the senator said the proposals include sites near airport runways in Salt Lake and Davis counties as well as in Tooele. Tooele, Stevenson said, could be a "very logical" choice.

If we have to, we'll slow down. But our objective is to come back to the legislative session with a site or sites and the cost.

–Sen. Jerry Stevenson

He said going much farther is "probably not real likely. And if we did, we'd have to go to southern Utah, someplace like Cedar City" to find a population base able to supply workers and volunteers.

Randy Sant, an economic development consultant to Tooele, told the commission that the economic impacts of a new prison should be part of the state's selection criteria.

"I look at this as a major industry coming into a community," Sant said. "It may not be as important if it is located along the Wasatch Front as if it is located in a rural community such as Tooele."

Bob Nardi, a consultant associated with MGT of America, the firm hired by the state to help with the relocation, said in a presentation to the commission that finding a willing, accepting and supportive community is the top location criteria.

"Very little else really matters," Nardi said, since virtually every site has technical drawbacks that have to be worked out. "What cannot be engineered is a community that is not interested."

Nardi recommended the commission prepare requirements for a new prison by mid-July and screen potential sites through October to determine which are the most promising. A final recommendation would be made in December.

Lawmakers voted in the 2014 Utah Legislature to move the prison and created the commission to come up with a site. A study by MGT put the price tag for relocating the aging prison from Point of the Mountain at $471.1 million.

The same study gave the state four options for making the move as soon as 2018 or as late as 2024. The commission was told Thursday the state won't have the bonding capacity needed to pay for a new prison until 2020.

Nardi also emphasized the need for the commission to be open about its activities, to avoid the public wondering "what's being decided behind closed doors, what's a done deal."

House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, also a commission member, warned that the decisions being made about a new prison site won't be unanimously welcomed.

"We're going to communicate and that means we're going to have a lot of people weighing in," Hughes said, suggesting lawmakers should "be careful what we ask for. I'm asking for it … but it's going to have its challenges."

The prison move has been studied for around three years to determine whether relocating the aging facility to free up what is seen as prime real estate for development makes financial sense.

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