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Deeply frustrated that the Prison Relocation Commission continues to consider a prime piece of Tooele County, state Rep. Merrill Nelson has crafted a bill that would make it easier to keep the prison in Draper.
It's an about-face for the Grantsville Republican, who in the past legislative session supported moving the prison. But, at the time, he assumed the state would find remote property. It didn't occur to him that the prison could move next to the Miller Motorsports Park, a spot that Tooele County has hoped would attract restaurants, hotels and shops.
"They just sprung this Miller site on us, a site that is totally unacceptable to everyone," Nelson said. "Now it makes it very difficult to talk to them because they kicked the hornet's nest and everything is buzzing out there."
He has opened two bill files that seek to accomplish the same goal. He wants the Legislature to allow the Prison Relocation Commission to consider remodeling the prison in Draper instead of moving it. As it stands, the commission is chartered with finding a new prison site, though the Legislature has yet to give it the power to buy the land or build the structure.
Nelson acknowledges the prison still may need to be relocated, but he doesn't like how the process has played out.
The commission has selected three finalists and each site has led to a public outcry. Beyond the Miller site, the commission is looking at land at the south end of Eagle Mountain and on the west side of Salt Lake City.
"My bottom line is I don't want to force it on anyone," Nelson said. "If the state can't find a site where it would be willingly accepted, I would rather keep it where it is."
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, co-chairman of the Prison Relocation Commission, first heard of Nelson's plan of attack from The Salt Lake Tribune.
"I'm very disappointed," he said, "that Rep. Nelson hasn't reached out to anyone on the commission."
Wilson dismissed Nelson's efforts, saying that the issue was settled last session. He also noted that consultants have reported moving the prison would result in a big economic boom at the current site, just off of Interstate 15, creating as many as 40,000 jobs over time and $1.8 billion per year in economic opportunity. It would cost about $250 million to renovate the prison in Draper.
"I'm just committed as ever," Wilson said, "and I think the commission is as committed as ever to find a new location for the prison."
The commission created a series of criteria, including proximity to the metropolitan area's hospitals and courts, along with access to utilities and environmental concerns. Outside consultants then worked with willing landowners to identify potential sites.
The three finalists are now undergoing a more thorough review to determine the most optimal site.
Wilson said the Tooele County site, which is owned by the family of Larry H. Miller, meets the criteria despite the outcry from county leaders. But Nelson said that uproar should count for something.
"They are just blindly forging ahead in the face of known opposition and that, to me, makes no sense," Nelson said. "It will not happen. It cannot happen. We will not allow it to happen."
And yet, like many Tooele County leaders, Nelson isn't saying that the prison cannot be located elsewhere in his district. He just doesn't want it near the county's major cities.
"Yeah, I think we can find a remote site if that is what they are interested in," he said. "They should say, 'We will pull the Miller site off the table if you help us find something else.' That should be the approach, not forcing it down our throats."
Wilson notes that the commission has said it is open to reviewing other potential locations for a new prison and has changed the criteria to include areas that are more remote, though the panel still will consider proximity to the state's metro core.
The commission has not announced it's next meeting, though it's voting members, all of whom are state lawmakers, hope to narrow the list of potential sites in March, by the end of the upcoming legislative session.