Inland Port Authority Board hires an interim director in hopes of advancing Utah development project

Chris Conabee

The Inland Port Authority Board voted unanimously Wednesday to hire an interim director to oversee the project for the next six months — a move the board’s chairman said he hopes will take the port development to the “next level.”

Chris Conabee, a businessman who works in real estate and serves on the governor’s Economic Development Board, will lead a public engagement process and help implement a tax incentives policy for businesses that plan to come to the area. He’ll start Jan. 1 and will make $100,000 for the six-month stint, with the possibility of a $10,000 bonus at the end of his term.

“None of the other applicants were from Utah,” board Chairman Derek Miller told The Salt Lake Tribune of the board’s choice. “And not only his knowledge of Utah but specifically dealing with incentive projects, dealing with development and dealing with the Point of the Mountain public engagement process were the three things that made him stand out.”

The board is searching for an executive director to lead development of the distribution hub on 20,000 acres inside Salt Lake City’s western boundary. Although state statute set a Nov. 1 deadline for making that hire, Miller said the executive search firm just started its process last week.

It’s expected to be another four to six months before someone is hired, so the interim director will “carry us through” until that point, Miller said.

“It’s important that we have professional help,” he said. “I think we have good experts from different fields represented on the board, but every single one of them have a different full-time job so there’s only so much we can do with the bandwidth that we have.”

The 11 members of the Inland Port Board, which is tasked with overseeing development in the inland port, are unpaid and their work is supported by Salt Lake City Council staff.

To choose an interim director, Miller said he interviewed each of the applicants from a pool of mostly out-of-state candidates. The board then reviewed their qualifications in a closed session at its November meeting before offering the position to Conabee and approving his contract on Wednesday.

(Governor's Economic Development Board) Chris Conabee

Conabee, a Park City resident, wasn’t able to attend the meeting Wednesday because of snow in the canyons. But reached by phone, he told The Salt Lake Tribune that he’s looking forward to getting started in his new role.

“I didn’t want to drive past that area in the airport and not see it designed properly,” he said of his decision to apply.

Conabee said he knows the inland port process has been politically fraught so far, with the process of its creation and closed subcommittee meetings creating mistrust among some community advocates. He’s also aware of the environmental concerns associated with the development, which port opponents have argued will likely worsen air quality and damage the Great Salt Lake’s already fragile ecosystem.

“When we talk about infrastructure and transit and clearing customs for our small businesses and getting goods and getting more globally competitive, those are all great things that I think 99 percent of Utahns agree with, right?” he said, referring to the vision for the port. “But then it’s the ‘how do you do that?’ How do you do that without impacting environmental lands, how do you do that without air pollution problems? Those are big conflicting points.”

Conabee, a self-described environmentalist, said he thinks the board can “strike the right balance” between the environmental and economic considerations of the inland port, and he hopes to facilitate that with a public engagement process similar to the one he oversaw as co-chairman of the Point of the Mountain Development Commission.

“One of the things that people outside of Utah don’t do well is they come up with an idea and they don’t vet it through the public and they don’t get public input and people are afraid of that, right?” he said. “They feel as though there’s another motive as to why things are being done other than the public interest. So [we need] to get out in front of the public and get their mandate.”