Robert Gehrke: Salt Lake City mayoral candidates have exchanged barbs on the inland port. Let’s look at what really happened.

Robert Gehrke

Who is to blame for the inland port?

It’s probably the most incendiary issue in the Salt Lake City mayoral campaign. And, if you listen to any of the 714 debates between Erin Mendenhall and Luz Escamilla, you’ve heard vastly divergent narratives about how the port came into being.

That was driven home listening to last week’s debate hosted by The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13.

So I thought I’d take a little time to unravel some of the competing viewpoints — not so much as a fact check or to say one candidate is right or wrong — but to contextualize what happened and hopefully help voters understand what the city did (or didn’t do) leading to the port.

(Also, be sure to check out this breakdown on where the mayoral candidates stand on other issues.)

Mendenhall: “I wish the city had been given a vote of, ‘Do you want a port or not,’ but that has unfortunately never been a reality for us.” [From the Trib-FOX debate]

Conceptually, the city has been looking at developing the Northwest Quadrant near the Great Salt Lake for decades. Feasibility studies mention the creation of an inland port going back to the 1970s. But in the past few years, two things came together to make the development feasible: 1. Interest from the major landowners in the area, including Rio Tinto; 2. The development of roads and utilities in the area that came about partly because of the prison relocation project that is underway.

In 2016, the council adopted a Northwest Quadrant master plan and in 2017, shortly after taking office, Mayor Jackie Biskupski identified the development of an inland port as a key piece of her economic development strategy.

“Salt Lake City is already the Crossroads of the West and a prime location for an inland port,” the mayor said in 2017.

The mayor and City Council were working with the property owners to make it a reality, when developer Steve Price presented the port idea to then-House Speaker Greg Hughes.

“I consider Steve Price to be an oracle,” Hughes said, comparing it to Paul’s conversion from The Bible. “The reason I got so driven in the end is because I knew it was going to be very hard and I worried it wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t get involved."

So, it’s true that city residents never got an up-or-down vote on the inland port, but both the mayor and the council had put the wheels in motion before Hughes and the state ever waded into the issue.

Escamilla: “When you and members of the council re-zoned that Northwest Quadrant piece … what did you think was going to happen?” [Trib-FOX debate]

Here, Escamilla is referring to a unanimous vote by the City Council in December 2017 to change the zoning to help pave the way for development of the port.

There was, however, some urgency for the city to move forward. In early 2017, the state had started exploring a larger role in the port planning. By late that year, the Legislature was suggesting it could take the lead on the development.

The re-zoning, while facilitating the port development, was also an attempt by the city to stave off heavy-handed legislative action.

Mendenhall: “If we had voted no [on $28 million in reimbursement for developers] we would have been in breach of contract and forfeited the city’s authority over 7,000 acres north of I-80.” [Oct. 10 debate on environmental issues]

In August, despite heated opposition, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a $28 million tax break for inland port developers. Council members contended they had no choice.

There was some argument at the August hearing whether that was the case, but that is a legal argument I can’t resolve.

There is a larger point: The reason the City Council’s hands were tied was because the council and the mayor hastily signed development agreements with the inland port developers in January 2018. They tied their hands themselves.

The August vote essentially ratified the earlier action supported by both the council and the mayor and they did it for two reasons.

It was an opportunity for the city to shape the development before the state took control. And the city made the case to lawmakers that the development agreements were proof the situation was under control and the state could back off.

It didn’t work, of course. In March 2018, the Legislature passed its sweeping law taking control of about 20 percent of the city’s territory and creating the Inland Port Authority to manage the huge development.

After negotiations with Mendenhall and the council, a revised bill was passed in the summer of 2018. Biskupski has sued to invalidate the port legislation and opponents have turned out in force to oppose and, in some instances, disrupt meetings of the port board. But planning is moving ahead.

Where it goes from here depends largely on the outcome of that lawsuit Biskupski filed and, perhaps more importantly, the course taken by Salt Lake City’s next mayor.