Salt Lake City should have a ‘more equitable’ role in the inland port — and that could take legislation, board chairman says

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Derek Miller, President and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance and board chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board, joins other community leaders to relay new reports claiming that The Gateway and the Rio Grande area of downtown Salt Lake City has seen a "dramatic decrease" in crime.

Inland Port Authority Board Chairman Derek Miller says there may be a need for legislation to give Salt Lake City a greater role in a future development project planned for nearly a third of the state capital’s landmass.

City officials have felt trampled ever since Utah lawmakers last year unveiled and passed the bill creating the inland port, a massive distribution hub planned for its northwest side, over their protests of state overreach and the loss of their zoning and taxing authority.

But amid mounting opposition to the project — and a lawsuit filed by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski alleging its creation unconstitutionally usurped municipal authority — Miller says he would support revisiting legislation with whomever becomes the next mayor to create “a more full and equitable partnership” with the city.

“I’ve always said and will continue to say we will not have as good a product at the end of the day without the mayor’s office being part of the decision-making process,” Miller said during a recent meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board. “I’ve been in politics and around politics for a long time. I’ve never seen an issue more vitriolic than this. And that’s sad. I mean, it’s not just bad for the authority and the work we need to do; it’s sad to see our community torn apart.”

Miller noted that the city currently holds two seats on the 11-member board overseeing development of the port — one for the city administration, which is filled by Lara Fritts, economic development director for the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office; and the other for the City Council, which is filled by Councilman James Rogers.

“But in how the decisions are made and how the development is done and how the taxes are used, I think [it] ought to be a full partnership,” Miller said, noting that’s something he’s wished for from the beginning.

He said it ultimately would be up to legislators to determine what a more robust partnership could look like and declined to give examples of specific changes they could explore.

Rogers said he was pleased to hear Miller’s comments, which he hoped would provide “great momentum” moving into next year’s legislative session.

“It’s good to hear that there is support for having Salt Lake City more involved,” he said. “Whether it’s through legislation, I don’t know what’s on the horizon — maybe it is an extra seat at the table or looking at it that way, but I’m all in favor.”

Biskupski, who announced in March that she was abandoning her re-election campaign due to family matters, was less excited about the proposition, noting that she would be “skeptical” of efforts to adjust the port authority law after past experiences with the Legislature.

“We don’t have the ability to control legislation,” she said. “As a community, we’ve lobbied Capitol Hill on many issues over the years and been unsuccessful, right? So at the end of the day, you can go lobby all day long, but they control the final say. And that’s not really a partnership.”

Most of the candidates vying to replace Biskupski, a former state lawmaker herself, have said they would not replicate her hard-line approach to the project if elected. However, most have agreed that the development represents an overreach of state power — and several have recently taken stronger stances on the port.

Still, Rogers expressed hope that the next mayor will come to the table to advocate for the environmental and economic interests of Salt Lake City residents in regards to the project.

“I can tell you firsthand coming from the council perspective when I suggest something or say, ‘This weighs really heavy on my vote,’ I feel that I have a lot of ability to have them listen and be convincing,” he said. “And I think that Salt Lake City would be even more convincing if we had the mayor involved and had a true partnership with the administration.”

The Legislature passed two bills related to the inland port during this year’s session, but neither expanded Salt Lake City’s influence in the project.

One of the bills, sponsored by state Sen. Luz Escamilla, who is now a Salt Lake City mayoral candidate, will establish baseline environmental conditions in the inland port area planned for Salt Lake City’s northwesternmost side and monitor any changes as a result of the development.

The second, sponsored by inland port board member and House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, would actually have reduced the city’s power by making it more difficult to bring legal challenges against the project.

That language was eventually removed from the final bill, which was primarily focused on expanding the scope of the port project from a single site in Salt Lake City to a multisite approach that would include rural areas across the state. Several counties have already expressed interest.

Gibson, a Republican from Mapleton, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he’s always been “mindful” of Salt Lake City and said the “substantial” changes he’d made to that bill are evidence of a good-faith effort to address city concerns — something he’d be open to doing again in a future legislative session.

“I think I would sit down and look and see where the pinch points are and what’s important to them and where that needs to happen,” he said, “while still keeping in mind that the inland port needs to succeed in its mission to create opportunities for the state of Utah … in a very eco-friendly way as well.”

Among the changes he said he’d likely consider would be to the makeup of the board, as the Salt Lake City School District and the Magna township (which has a piece of its area within the inland port jurisdiction) also seek more say in the development.

“It’s very productive” to have city officials at the table, he said, “and have their thoughts on what’s happening and how we can constructively build a project that will be a success for everyone.”