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Why not just rebuild the prison in Draper?
It's the nagging question the Prison Relocation Commission has found difficult to move beyond, and it hung over a public meeting held in Salt Lake City on Wednesday evening.
Commission co-chairman Brad Wilson, a state lawmaker from Kaysville, warned the crowd of about 200 that "we are not here to talk about whether or not to move the state prison."
But as a moderator began reading questions from the audience, the topic popped up repeatedly, far more than any other, and it garnered the biggest outburst of applause from the audience.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the other co-chairman, was rather brusque in referencing the Legislature's vote to relocate the lockup: "The decision has been made to move the prison, the question is where do we put it."
Wilson, who also seemed frustrated, elaborated. He said building elsewhere would allow for a modern prison complex that would be better suited to offer therapy and rehabilitation services to inmates. He called the Draper facility a "hodgepodge" of buildings with little space for treatment, and said it is not possible to rebuild on the Draper site while the current prison remains open.
"It is just impractical to do that," he said. "It won't fit there."
The last reason he gave is that the land in Draper would be better used as a business park in an area that has attracted a cluster of high-tech companies.
"It doesn't make any sense to rebuild it in the economic and job creation hub of the state of Utah," he said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and the Salt Lake City Council released a joint statement Tuesday that argued the prison should stay in Draper and suggested the project should be modeled off of the construction of a new Salt Lake City International Airport, which is happening right next to the existing airport.
"It is an excellent example of building in place while continuing to operate," the joint letter states. "It is something that surely can be duplicated at the state level."
The meeting, at the Utah State Fairpark, was the first of three public gatherings, where the commission hopes to pitch its vision of a modern corrections facility that would benefit the community. But as Wednesday's meeting shows, that's a tough sell, especially for communities that have known since December that they are on the short list of sites and have had months to develop reasons that they don't want a prison in their area, even if it comes with roughly 800 stable jobs.
The focus of Wednesday's meeting was land about five miles west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, parts of which are owned by Rio Tinto and a family that runs a winery in California.
The Salt Lake City site is the only location that has wetland concerns. One questioner suggested that if this site were picked, the state would get mired in environmental lawsuits. Other questions focused on the noise from nearby duck hunters and whether there would be efforts to protect the nearby migratory pathways for birds.
State consultant Bob Nardi said his team is making decisions to limit chances of a legal challenge and is collecting information on how a prison could fit on land near the Great Salt Lake.
He said there is "no doubt" that the state could build on the Salt Lake City site; the question is how much it would cost. That study is still ongoing.
Sophia Williams, a Rose Park resident, held a "No Prison in Salt Lake City" sign and said she's worried that if the prison came to the city, it would hurt her property values.
The panel received a question on that topic. Consultants agreed that there are no major studies to point to, but said that from their experience, they don't expect the prison to reduce the value of homes.
Not everyone in attendance was against moving the prison or even bringing it to Salt Lake City.
Ben and Michelle Aldana drove in from Orem. They have both spent time in jail or prison and wanted to know how a new prison would offer better living conditions for inmates.
Ben Aldana said the cells at the state prison are "basically an animal cage. It doesn't help people rehabilitate."
Department of Corrections Director Rollin Cook participated in the question-and-answer session and said he wants a new facility because it would provide opportunities to offer more programs that he believes would reduce the state's recidivism rate.
Commission members and consultants will hold a similar session in Grantsville on May 28. The commission is considering two sites in that area: one behind the Wal-Mart Distribution Center and one adjacent to the Miller Motorsports Park. A third meeting will take place June 2 in Eagle Mountain. There's a site at the southern edge of that city and another in nearby Fairfield.
After that, the commission is expected to recommend a site to the Legislature by Aug. 1. Then, Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to call the Legislature into a special session to vote on the relocation.
Prison relocation public meetings
Thursday, May 28
Open house 4-7 p.m.
Question and answer 7-9 p.m.
Grantsville High School
155 E. Cherry St.
Tuesday, June 2
Open house 4-7 p.m.
Question and answer 7-9 p.m.
Frontier Middle School
1427 Mid Valley Road