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Utah officials still in early planning stage for new state prison near Salt Lake City airport


SALT LAKE CITY — Early construction for a new state prison in Salt Lake City is at least a year away, but that could be pushed back as a commission overseeing the process decides how they'll manage the project.

At the first meeting Tuesday of the Prison Development Commission, lawmakers and state officials considered plans to strike a deal with one contractor or bring on a manager to help oversee the project and sign contracts with multiple firms.

Commission members said they need more time to decide and plan to meet again in a few weeks with more information.

The slowdown comes weeks after the a commission last month approved a wetland-rimmed site about 3 miles west of Salt Lake City International Airport for the new facility. The site was among four considered by state officials and was quickly approved by lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert in a special session.

Proponents say the project will allow Utah to build a state-of-the-art facility allowing for rehabilitation and treatment programs and tear down a crowded, outdated prison in the Salt Lake City suburb of Draper, freeing up that land for business development.

Jim Russell with Utah's Division of Facilities Construction and Management told the commission Tuesday that by bringing on a manger to help oversee the project, construction could start about a year earlier, starting with standard, secondary support buildings next summer. Construction would also move in stages and take about four months longer to complete, finishing around 2020.

It offers the state more flexibility to break up the project and involve local firms rather seasoned builders of prisons from around the country, but it could cost more.

Russell didn't offer specifics about how the costs Tuesday.

While the Prison Development Commission is supposed to monitor the building of a new prison, it's barred by state law from weighing in on what to do with the land in Draper.

High tech firms such as Adobe and eBay have opened offices nearby, and state officials estimate that the 700-acres where the old prison sits could turn around $500 million to more than $2 billion in economic activity if it's repurposed.

Several lawmakers said the promise of a development boom was a key selling point in the relocation debate, giving the state a way to afford the $550 million cost of a new prison to house about 4,000 inmates.

Salt Lake City's mayor and City Council opposed the move, arguing the site in their city is a bad fit. Mayor Ralph Becker has said he's meeting with city lawyers to explore a possible lawsuit.

City officials worry the prison would sit on sandy soil that could be disastrous in an earthquake, with buildings sinking and buried storage tanks rising up and breaching the surface.

The site also sits next to an abandoned landfill. Building on and near the landfill runs the risk that groundwater could carry pollutants onto the prison site or to nearby wetlands and southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, city officials warned.

A commission that chose the site over three others said it will be complicated to stabilize the soil and prepare the land for the prison, but it can be done. In the long term, it will be the cheapest place to operate the prison because it will be so close to Salt Lake City's hospitals, courts and population base, they argue.

Before about four years of construction can start, Utah would have to spend about $60 million and 18 to 36 months stabilizing the soil.

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