Utah governor tours a now-empty prison. See what he saw before the wrecking ball comes.

Spencer Cox and his predecessor, Gary Herbert, laud the new and improved lockup — and point to the development riches that await at the former Draper site.

Draper • In a moment more than 15 years in the making, Utah eagerly turned the page Monday on a difficult part of state history.

Gov. Spencer Cox took a final tour through the drab gray-green hallways and bleak holding cells of the former Utah State Prison in Draper, just as demolition crews began the initial stages of the monthslong task of tearing down the sprawling 71-year-old facility.

Coming years will see the shuttered prison, adjacent buildings and the 700 state-owned acres it sits on along Draper’s Bitterbrush Lane replaced with a new “15-minute city” known as The Point, to be built as a regional model for smart development and saturated, according to plans, with new housing, commercial development, an innovation district, green spaces and a state-of-the-art transit system.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance of the Wasatch Block of the former Utah State Prison in Draper, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

After celebrating the opening of a new $1.05 billion prison with a ribbon-cutting in June, the Republican governor said it was time to celebrate the closure of what has been the state’s primary penitentiary since 1951 — and with it, he added, “the closing of an era and the beginning of something bigger and certainly better for our state.”

“It really will be the gem of Utah,” Cox promised, “and will show the rest of the world what is possible.”

“We’re so excited for what the future of this place can and will be very soon,” he said after the 20-minute prison tour, which offered one last look at Utah’s old ways of crime and punishment, in the shell of a place that once held its most notorious offenders.

“The world has changed around this site,” Cox said of what was once a location far outside Utah’s main urban boundaries and is now surrounded by cities and thriving suburbs.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cells in the Wasatch Block at the former Utah State Prison in Draper, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Inmates and guards were all gone Monday, moved in July to the new Utah State Correctional Facility on the western edge of Salt Lake City. Weeds sprouted in cracked pavement in the parking lot and the odd door hung open here and there. Dusty and paper-strewn offices and guard stations, now vacated and stripped of anything useful, stood quiet, awaiting oblivion.

Visitors including Cox, former Gov. Gary Herbert, Draper Mayor Troy Walker and other state officials casually sauntered past razor wire, beneath the menacing watch tower and beyond control booths emptied of their commanders.

Inside, the seemingly never-ending series of heavy iron doors, thick holding chains, anonymous concrete walls and dismal and cramped cells spoke of an approach to prisoners that Utah, according to Cox, is eager to move beyond.

“Some of the things we’ve learned in this place have been transported to the new prison,” he said. “But we have developed better ways to secure those who are a danger to society and, more importantly, an opportunity to work to rehabilitate people as they pay their debt to society.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Restraints are seen in a holding cell in the Wasatch Block at the former Utah State Prison in Draper, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Although economic gains will flow from developing the former lockup’s land, the governor said, “it really is about how do we rehabilitate these these prisoners in ways that will make you a better place and keep us more safe in the future.”

Once past the foreboding entrance, the dignitaries passed through the old prison’s death row, where the metal bars are said to be relics of Utah’s original state prison relocated from Sugar House.

They reviewed portions of the prison’s Johnson bar, a rare manual locking system operated by hand levers.

They stood beneath the wooden arches to a modest prison chapel, site of the facility’s volunteer-run faith, education and support programs and the lone portion of the prison that is going to be preserved. Born from a list of demands filed by rioting inmates shortly after they were moved to Draper from Sugar House, the chapel, Cox said, “serves as a reminder that there is hope even for the most fallen among us.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The chapel of the Wasatch Block at the former Utah State Prison in Draper, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. The chapel will be preserved when the site is redeveloped.

Supporters of ambitious plans to develop the opened site in Draper say it is the economic opportunity of a lifetime, with the potential to accelerate the dramatic growth already happening along the Interstate 15 stretch linking Utah and Salt Lake counties.

Cox credited his immediate predecessor, Herbert, a former Utah County real estate agent, as “the person responsible for initiating and supporting this effort from day one” — though Herbert’s predecessor, Jon Huntsman Jr., floated the idea in 2004.

“And here we are. It actually happened,” said Cox, who presented Herbert with a framed honorary skeleton key to prison doors.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox, right, presents former Gov. Gary Herbert with a prison key during a news conference at the former Utah State Prison in Draper, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Saying he hoped he never had to use it, Herbert mentioned his grandfather had worked as a brick mason at the Draper prison, giving him a sense of pride in the building as a young boy. He also invoked the prison chapel, citing it as an example of changed and more compassionate attitudes toward inmates.

“We’re going to have a better prison,” Herbert added, “with better outcomes. ... We are, in fact, meeting the future, making it our own and making it better. ... And we really have the chance now to develop what is really a very important part of real estate in our state, opening it up for opportunity.”

The Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, which governs development of the site, chose a consortium of firms in July as its main development partner for The Point. Lincoln Property Co., with headquarters in Dallas; Colmena Group of Salt Lake City; and Wadsworth Development Group in Draper are now in joint negotiations on a contract with the state.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance to a cell block in the Wasatch Block of the former Utah State Prison in Draper, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Scott Cuthbertson, deputy director of the land authority, said crews now will start abatement on the old prison and that the process of securing hazardous materials in the building could take months. Demolition of buildings, Cuthbertson said, is likely to extend well into next year, and early work on the core elements of The Point could take a year or more.

He predicted the first vertical construction of The Point — projected to someday be the size of neighboring Bluffdale (population 19,000) — might start sometime in 2026.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hand-painted signs in the Wasatch Block of the former Utah State Prison in Draper, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.