Inland Port Authority has a new boss; he warns that failure would ‘damage’ Utah for generations

Ben Hart moves from the governor’s office to executive director of the controversial commercial hub taking shape in northwest SLC.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Hart, former deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, is seen during a pandemic news conference on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. He was appointed as the new executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority on Aug. 24, 2022.

The board of the Utah Inland Port Authority appointed Ben Hart as its new executive director Wednesday.

Hart has worked at the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, formally called the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, since 2015. His most recent role was deputy director. Hart also previously served as a member of the port authority board.

Addressing the board, Hart said he looked forward to working with the port’s partners, including officials from Salt Lake City.

“We’ve got to find a really good balance where logistics and rail infrastructure empowers the economy,” he said, “but it does not overpower the community.”

The board received 96 applications from across the country after announcing its search for an executive director late last spring, according to chair Miles Hansen.

“We’re grateful for Ben,” Hansen said, “for everything he’s done over the years to prepare himself for this position and being willing to take on this challenge at this really critical time in the Inland Port Authority’s development.”

The port authority’s previous executive director, Jack Hedge, will transition into a new position as port president, according to a board meeting held in June. Under Hedge’s three-year tenure, the port authority faced numerous controversies, including no-bid contracts, public protests and delays on major projects, such as construction of the multimillion-dollar transloading facility.

There was no comment from or discussion about Hedge during the board’s Wednesday meeting.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Hedge begins a meeting at the Utah Capitol in 2019. He is leaving as executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority to become port president.

The resolution approving Hart’s hire does not note his salary. He made about $156,000 in wages and $70,000 in benefits while working as deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity in 2021. Hedge made just under $257,000 in wages and about $80,600 in benefits last year.

Hart will begin his new role Sept. 3. If he is terminated or asked to step down “for convenience and not for cause,” he will be entitled to six months’ severance pay, according to the board’s unanimously approved resolution.

The Utah Legislature formed the port authority in 2018 to harness the favorable economics of a new and expanding airport, the new state prison’s infrastructure and the Union Pacific rail hub in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

The port authority has few accomplishments to tout so far, despite shelling out millions to lease land and hire contractors. In apparent frustration over the lack of movement at the port, lawmakers restructured the board earlier this year, and new board members announced plans to conduct an audit of the port’s contracts.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake City residents and environmental advocates have expressed concerns about impacts to quality of life, traffic, air pollution and the wetland ecosystem near the Great Salt Lake. The inland port covers 16,000 acres, most of them within Utah’s capital.

Hart hinted at some of the port’s controversies while speaking to the board.

“I have gotten the question from some who said, ‘Are you sure you want this job? Why do you want this job?’” Hart said. “Well, let me just say unequivocally that I really do want this job. And the reason being is, because I believe this organization has an opportunity to change the future economy of the state of Utah in a very, very powerful and meaningful way.

Hart added that if the port fails, it would “damage” the state and future generations. But, as the port develops, Hart said the authority must prioritize environmental stewardship and minimize impacts to adjacent neighborhoods.

“If we ban the west side of Salt Lake City to distribution and logistics hell,” Hart said, “I cannot live with myself. That’s not what I’m here to do.”