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Lawmakers face choice: Move Utah prison to SLC or keep it in Draper

Vote • A legislative panel already has approved the move.

A watch tower is seen in front of the Wasatch facility during a media tour Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he's opposed to the idea of allowing a state commission to pick a location to build a new prison instead of leaving the decision with the Legislature. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

State lawmakers will get their chance to vote Wednesday on moving the prison to Salt Lake City, though a competing proposal calls for the penitentiary to remain in Draper.

The vote culminates the contentious debate that has raged ever since the Prison Relocation Commission unveiled potential sites last December. Gov. Gary Herbert will get his chance to sign or reject whatever resolution passes.

The commission, comprised of seven state lawmakers, voted unanimously last week to build a new prison west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, passing over sites in Grantsville, Eagle Mountain and Fairfield.

Since then, Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, a commission co-chairman, has reached out to his colleagues to gauge their support. He believes the Legislature will easily approve the recommendation.

"We have an overwhelming sentiment that the right thing to do is move the prison to that location," he said Tuesday. "People seem very supportive."

That said, a group of Democratic lawmakers representing Salt Lake City, including Reps. Sandra Hollins and Angela Romero and Sen. Luz Escamilla, held a press conference Monday to argue the prison should go elsewhere. And Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, introduced a resolution to rebuild a prison on its current site in Draper, an option he doesn't believe has received proper consideration.

Wilson expects both resolutions to come up for a vote in a special legislative session, though he believes Cox's proposal is based on "a false narrative." He points to a resolution that passed overwhelmingly in 2014 to move the prison out of Draper.

"It is unfortunate that Representative Cox doesn't seem to understand that issue," Wilson said.

Cox, an architect, believes the state can frugally and safely rebuild the prison at the Draper site, leaving extra land for development.

Legislative leaders say building in Draper will take longer and cost more. They want the prison moved, freeing up 700 acres of prime real estate to turn into a high-tech business park.

Wilson's resolution would allow the state to buy a piece of land west of the airport and start the construction process, while also calling on the development of the Draper land that creates "optimal job growth and long-term economic benefit."

Building a prison in Salt Lake City will take at least three years and likely cost more than $550 million.

mcanham@sltrib.com