Utah focused on Draper prison land in Amazon pitch, emails show

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah State Prison in Draper Thursday January 4, 2018.

Utah officials trying to persuade Amazon to build its new headquarters in the state decided the site of the aging prison in Draper would be the best spot to pitch for the project, according to public records from a city that participated in the process.

The state put the Draper area at the top of its list of potential locations for the headquarters following a Sept. 15 meeting of stakeholders, according to emails released by the city of West Jordan under a public records request.

It’s not clear if the 700-acre prison site ended up being the state’s final top choice Utah pitched to the tech giant. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which coordinated the state’s offer for Amazon’s $5 billion project, would not confirm or deny the Draper site was at the top of the list.

GOED refused a public records request for a copy of Utah’s bid for the project and other documents detailing the offer, citing a section of the state public records law that shields incentives offered to encourage businesses to expand to the state.

GOED executive director Val Hale said in a statement that the agency “takes a conservative approach to corporate recruitment, and we will never have the largest incentive offer. We are committed to negotiating the best deal for Utah taxpayers while providing high-paying jobs and improving quality of life.”

Hale said GOED honors the confidentiality of business negotiations but would release details about the incentive offered to Amazon if Utah is selected as a final location for the headquarters.

The secrecy is not unique to Utah — more than a dozen states and cities denied public records requests from The Associated Press seeking the offers they made to the Seattle-based company.

A number of Utah government officials involved did not return messages or declined to comment on the project, citing non-disclosure agreements that the state had participants sign.

The Draper prison site won’t be vacant until 2021, when roughly 4,000 inmates will be moved to a new facility being built west of Salt Lake City’s airport. The Draper land, sandwiched between Utah’s two largest counties and a raft of tech companies and startups, has been the focus of an ambitious redevelopment effort.

House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, a former chair of the Point of the Mountain Development Commission helping plan that redevelopment, said he had early discussions with GOED about the Amazon project but was not aware of the specifics of Utah’s proposal.

Wilson said he’s not surprised that the Draper site would be a front-runner because of its location and proximity to highways and other infrastructure.

“It’s a pretty logical place to see something like that go,” Wilson said.

GOED worked with the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, a private nonprofit that has a contract to assist GOED with recruiting companies. Together, they corralled interested cities for a carefully-coordinated state response, nicknaming it Project BOAT, (an acronym for “Biggest Of All Time.”)

Amazon’s request has unleashed an unprecedented race by governments around North America to see who can make the biggest promises and offer the largest economic incentives to draw a project that promises to create 50,000 new jobs.

In Utah, cities proposed potential sites and pitched their communities, and the state selected the top three that they would focus on in the proposal, according to redacted documents released by GOED showing the state’s plans for orchestrating the project.

David Oka, West Jordan’s now-retired economic development officer, described the Sept. 15 meeting he attended in emails to other city officials and later confirmed his account with The Associated Press.

As of Sept. 15, the Draper prison location was GOED’s top-ranked location, Oka said.

Midvale’s Jordan Bluffs, a 268-acre former Superfund Site on the city’s west side near Overstock.com’s new headquarters, was ranked second and an area near the Daybreak light rail station in South Jordan was ranked third, according to Oka.

Wilson said in his initial meeting with GOED before the Amazon pitch was underway, he left with the impression that it was “a pretty big mountain for us to climb for us to land that facility. It’s a possibility. It’s definitely not an inevitability.”

Wilson noted that some speculated Utah might be a front-runner but that Amazon was looking for a larger market or a location closer to the East Coast.

Amazon has not released specifics about when it will choose a location other than promising an announcement in 2018.