The Salt Lake City Council dispensed with its entire regular agenda Tuesday to hear instead from state lawmakers and other stakeholders on a long-envisioned but suddenly urgent plan to create an international trade hub that could distribute goods across the Western United States from a site in the city’s northwestern corner.
Council members and city officials came away from the discussion less than assured that the latest concept for a self-governing inland port would not cost the city control over taxation and land use in its largely undeveloped but economically strategic northwest quadrant.
At the end of the discussion, however, they emerged with a commitment from state legislative leaders — who are driving the process toward a vote in the Statehouse — that the city will be included in discussions and drafting of legislation to create the governing authority to develop and eventually run the trade hub.
“We want to be in the room,” Mayor Jackie Biskupski said after state leaders, led by House Speaker Greg Hughes, addressed council members and answered questions for 90 minutes. “We want the time that is needed to create the right structure, not modify a structure that we’re being told needs to be used.”
An inland-port concept for Utah has existed in one form or another for decades — the council on Tuesday referenced a 1990 Salt Lake County feasibility study on the subject. The latest proposal got its public debut in a meeting convened by Hughes last week, presented in such detail that it irked surprised city officials. The city has its own development plans for the thousands of privately-owned, unused acres that lie north of Interstate 80, and the City Council approved a series of incentives for the area last month.
The “Utah Global TradePort,” as the concept’s latest incarnation is called, would be similar to other entities across the country where inbound and outbound international cargo bypasses crowded coastal ports and goes through shipping logistics and other processing at an inland location, transported from there by rail. Utah officials almost unanimously agree that such a facility would make the state a regional trade powerhouse and drive significant economic opportunity. But consensus among officials breaks down over how such a potent economic driver would be governed, and how broadly its authority should extend.
Hughes and the House and Senate sponsors of pending legislation — Republican Rep. Francis Gibson, the majority whip from Mapleton, and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton — sought to assure council members Tuesday that the state had no intention to usurp local authority or to supersede local zoning or development plans. At the same time, they said, the proposed project is too big to be overseen by the city or, for that matter, any single government entity.
“This kind of vision is bigger than even our capital city, and we would not expect Salt Lake City to pay for all the infrastructure or all the opportunity that we could realize,” Hughes said.
“But to do it together, we need to start talking early,” he added, pledging to convene legislative discussions with the city immediately.
Council members told Hughes and the other state leaders that the city had clearly demonstrated eagerness to collaborate and move forward with developing the area and asked why legislation to create an oversight body was necessary. The state contingent said agreements needed to be codified in law to create long-term stable governance for the project.
“There’s absolutely no wiggle room,” said 1st District Councilman James Rogers, whose district would host the port site. “It’s the governing structure that they’re looking for.”
The state lawmakers said the board overseeing the port could include two or possibly three representatives from the city. Even so, council members said they were concerned about comparisons between the port’s governing body and the existing state Military Installation Development Authority, which guides development adjacent to military facilities in Utah, superseding local control.
“When you look at what it would take to make this kind of governance structure happen, the only entity that has to give up any authority is Salt Lake City,” council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said. “And it’s probably our taxing and land use authority for some portion of that northwest quadrant acreage.”