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SALT LAKE CITY — City officials remain determined to block the Utah State Prison from moving to Utah's capital city, but economists say whether it becomes a burden depends on the details of the new facility's development.
City leaders worry that the prison could degrade the west-side community and snatch away economic growth opportunities, but state lawmakers say the facility could actually accelerate economic development in the city's remote northwest quadrant.
But Pamela Perlich, senior research economist for the University of Utah's Bureau of Economics and Business Research, said it's too early to know what the city will face with the new prison, but she believes its impact won't be as negative, or as beneficial, as city and state officials say.
"It could lead to new benefits, but it could also do a lot of harm," she said. "But the angel is in the details. … We need to see how it all unfolds."
After Gov. Gary Herbert signed the resolution Thursday approving the relocation of the prison to a site west of Salt Lake City International Airport, he said the new prison could be the "catalyst" the city has needed to develop that area.
"It would take a lot longer for development to occur out there without the prison," the governor said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show."
House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the utilities and road improvements needed for the new prison could attract commercial and industrial companies that otherwise would have not considered the remote area.
But Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers is skeptical that the new prison will be the economic driver lawmakers paint it to be. Rogers says the city is losing opportunity because the $550 million, 4,000-bed prison would snare more than 500 acres that could have been eventually developed by taxable property owners.
"I'd love to believe everything they're clamoring about it being an economic driver, but if that were the case, I would think every single community would be lobbying for the prison," he said. "But that's not the case."
I'd love to believe everything they're clamoring about it being an economic driver, but if that were the case, I would think every single community would be lobbying for the prison. But that's not the case.
–James Rogers, Salt Lake City Councilman
Mayor Ralph Becker said the new prison could eventually place Salt Lake City in a similar position that Draper faces now, by locking up hundreds of acres of potentially economically valuable land.
"We thought 60 years ago, when the prison was moved from Sugar House out to Draper, that it was so far out it would never be affected by future economic opportunities," Becker said Thursday on "The Doug Wright Show." "This property, in my mind, has similar potential."
"Time will tell," Rogers said, whether the prison attracts or deters businesses, even with its infrastructure. He said he doubts the facility will be the "magnet" lawmakers say it will be.
"I hope I'm proven wrong," Rogers said.
Perlich said "it's absolutely true" that Salt Lake City will gain infrastructure and employment opportunities through the new prison and its social rehabilitation programs. But, she said, city officials are also right to be concerned.
"With the inevitability of Salt Lake City's growth, you've got to believe that eventually that land would be developed," she said. "It remains to be seen if a prison will be a deterrent or an attractant to certain industries."
For years, Salt Lake City officials have talked about developing the land west of the airport. In 1988, Mayor Palmer DePaulis called the area the "future of Salt Lake City." In 1994, Mayor Deedee Corradini talked of building 50,000 homes there.
A year later, city planners said 40,000 people might eventually live in the city's northwest quadrant, but worries about the nearby landfill and wetlands caused residents to withdraw their plans.
In 2010, the city considered a master plan to build housing for 70,000 people in the area, but Rogers said the plan stalled because the City Council was concerned about residential units in the remote area.
Prior to the proposal to move the prison west of the airport, the City Council was considering a new master plan to develop the area for industrial and commercial businesses that needed large warehouses for product storage and would benefit from proximity to the airport, he said.
Rogers acknowledged that Salt Lake City wouldn't be in its current situation if it had developed the land sooner.
"Had the northwest master plan been approved in 2010, we wouldn't even be discussing a prison right now," he said.