Utah Inland Port’s new leader says ‘building trust’ will be his biggest challenge

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Inland Port Authority Executive Director Jack Hedge.

Jack Hedge was hired in the midst of a protest.

The activists who sang, chanted and banged on the doors outside the meeting room where he was appointed in June as the first full-time executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority weren’t there to oppose him, exactly, but to battle the project he had just been charged with overseeing.

And as one demonstrator was arrested and carried through the halls of the Utah Capitol that day, protests were just beginning to mount against the global distribution hub development planned for a massive portion of Salt Lake City’s northwest side.

Just two weeks after Hedge moved to Utah from Southern California, where he had served as the director of cargo and industrial real estate for the Port of Los Angeles, the project spawned one of the most violent and chaotic protests in Salt Lake City in recent memory, culminating in the arrests of eight people at the Salt Lake Chamber building downtown.

A few weeks later, Hedge was there to see the protests in person. This time, one person was arrested for disorderly conduct within the first minutes of a working group meeting hosted in an unusual location: Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Police Precinct.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police remove protesters occupying the Chamber of Commerce Building Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. Dozens of people showed up to protest the planned Inland Port. The protest began at City Hall and moved to the Chamber of Commerce.

Stepping into a leadership role on such a divisive project comes with challenges, Hedge acknowledges.

The biggest of those, he said, is beginning “to build that trust” with the community.

But where others see chaos, Hedge said he sees immense possibility — and that’s why he decided to take on the difficult task.

“The opportunity to really kind of build out or be part of building out a logistics system like this doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world as far as I know,” he said in a recent sit-down interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “The opportunity to do something like this is just tremendous.”

For proponents of the inland port, Hedge’s appointment is seen as a turning point for an economic endeavor that has faced controversy and missteps for months.

“It’s one thing to come in and run a port,” said Chris Conabee, who stepped into similar shoes earlier this year when he was appointed as the port’s interim executive director. “It’s another thing to set a vision that ties together everything we’ll need as a growing society with the doubling of population and impact of states and communities around us, in addition to having to do that in a really environmentally sensitive way, not just to lead the country but to lead the nation.”

“He’s the right guy to do that,” Conabee concluded.

Meanwhile, opponents of the project are watching Hedge cautiously, waiting to see how he’ll engage with community members to address their concerns around the possible environmental impacts of the project and their frustrations with the public process it has gone through.

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a member of the Stop the Polluting Port coalition, hasn’t sat down with Hedge yet but said she would like to see “more openness and transparency” under his leadership.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “There’s a lot of concern. And there aren’t any answers to our questions.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) From left, Michael Cundick, co-founder of Salt Lake City Air Protectors; Deeda Seed with the Center for Biological Diversity; Heather Dove president of the Great Salt Lake Audubon; and Dorothy Owen, chairwoman of the Westpointe Community Council, discuss the location of the proposed inland port on April 2, 2019. Last year, Utah lawmakers took control of a massive portion of land in Salt Lake City's northwest area in an effort to create a distribution hub on the city's northwest side, sparking outrage among residents.

A ‘progressive,’ ‘forward-looking’ development

In the two months he’s been on the job, Hedge said he’s often asked if settling into his new role feels like drinking from a firehose.

“It’s more like taking a swimming pool and tilting it up and trying to drink,” he jokes. “It is hectic. It is minute to minute. It’s meetings and phone calls. It’s interviews. It’s trying to deal with really mundane things like, where do I get a phone, how do I get business cards?”

Hedge, 60, is originally from Dallas and holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration focused in international marketing from Texas A&M University. His years of experience working at ports began in 2006 at the Port of Tacoma in Washington state, where he served as the director of real estate and asset management for six years.

From there, he went on to work at the Port of Los Angeles — the largest container port complex in North America — where he was responsible for overseeing and leasing the port’s 3,500 acres of owned property and managing a multibillion dollar portfolio.

While the Utah Inland Port doesn’t own any property within the boundaries of the project area, which was set by the state through legislation in 2018, Hedge said he thinks his work in and knowledge of the industry will be valuable as the state’s distribution center gets off the ground.

“One of the things I like to say is you inherit dirty facilities, dirty logistics, you don’t build them,” he said. “I know what those logistic facilities and those port facilities look like that have been developed over the last 100 years and I know what people around the world are doing to try to mitigate those and clean those things up. So we can lift from those and use best practices to try to drive a more progressive, more forward looking, smarter development.”

Without a business plan, which is currently in the works, it’s difficult to know what the port will look like. But much of the opposition to the development has centered around environmental concerns — including its impact on the state’s already poor air quality and on the bird habitat and ecosystem in the area near the Great Salt Lake.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The proposed inland port area is west of downtown.

Hedge said he’s aware of those concerns and sees his role as using tax breaks to help companies mitigate negative impacts.

That might be by incentivizing “the cleanest available trucks” along routes away from main traffic areas or outside of peak hours and encouraging buildings that are net-zero, meaning they produce as much renewable energy as they use, he said.

“My vision is it’s not about any particular type of facility or any particular type of development,” Hedge said. “It’s about how those things get developed, how those things get built. The market will sort of determine what gets built, so what we can do is influence how it gets built.”

The market will also determine, he said, whether businesses in the project area will facilitate the transfer of fossil fuels, like coal — one of the big concerns for port opponents.

Oil and coal transfer “makes no sense” to do in Salt Lake City, he said, but could be in the picture within the satellite “hubs" that will be based in rural communities as a way to make it easier for their exports to clear international customs.

“If they have a market for their coal, they will build facilities to transport that coal,” Hedge said. “If the inland port is involved, then we can help drive how those facilities are built and how those facilities operate so it lessens the impact. And there may be policies that are even more stringent than that, but at the minimum those are the kinds of things we can do.”

Representatives from Tooele, Weber, Box Elder and Millard counties have expressed interest in bringing a hub to their communities.

‘We want that input’

Dorothy Owen, chairwoman of the Westpointe Community Council, has yet to sit down with Hedge.

That’s not for lack of trying, she says.

Owen recently attended an open house hosted by Envision Utah, which has been facilitating a public engagement process on the port project, with the goal of encountering Hedge. But he wasn’t there. A few weeks later, she invited him to the west side’s and Jordan Meadows’ Night Out Community Celebration — an event she says he’d originally planned to come to but didn’t end up attending.

“I don’t think it’s fair to use that as an example to say he’s a terrible person or he’s not going to be a good director,” she said.

But she thinks “it was probably pretty important for him to be there — and we kind of told people and he wasn’t there. I suspect he really didn’t even realize it was that important.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Dorothy Owen speaks about feeling bullied by state government as Utahns concerned about environmental health consequences and community impact from creating a state-controlled inland port authority in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant held a press conference in the Capitol Rotunda on March 4, 2018.

Hedge told The Tribune that while he hasn’t had an opportunity to meet with port opponents, like Seed and Owen, he has engaged with the Utah Clean Air Partnership and took a tour of the Great Salt Lake area with the National Audubon Society.

He’s also begun meeting with elected officials and interested citizens, he said, with plans to continue to reach out to stakeholders.

“I can’t imagine that there’s anybody out there that I couldn’t have a dialogue with, that I couldn’t talk to, one-on-one, face-to-face and have a conversation,” he said. “I don’t know that people will ever agree. I don’t expect to change minds. I don’t expect people to trust me. That’s something that you have to earn. But I think we will.”

Hedge sat down recently with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who is suing the Inland Port Authority Board over the state’s takeover of city land to create the port. She told The Tribune later that she was interested in meeting him to understand his perspectives, experience and history related to the development of the port.

“He’s a perfectly fine human being,” she said. “He was hired to do a job that obviously I don’t agree with. But our conversation was very friendly and civil and really just a very basic introduction.”

Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, who also serves as vice chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board, was more effusive about Hedge, who he’s said was the board’s “No. 1 pick” for the executive director position and who he believes is committed to ensuring the port is “green from the beginning.”

During the selection process, "it was Jack [who] presented scenarios to protect my residents, to protect the community, to make the community have more of an impact with the development out there, figuring out ways to mitigate it and make it a community asset,” Rogers said.

The full Inland Port Authority Board hasn’t had a meeting since the one Hedge was hired at in June and has yet to set a date for its next meeting. Hedge insists its because of a lack of business to transact, not because of disruptions by protesters.

Over the next few months, the board plans to roll out a strategic business plan that will outline how the port area will develop moving forward — but Hedge stressed that it should be seen as “a road,” not “a destination.”

“I think people are afraid that there’s going to be a board meeting in October and we’re going to say, OK, ‘We’re building a big intermodal rail yard,’” he said. “And that’s just not where we are.”

Conversations about how to ensure the board is able to conduct its meetings without being shut down by protests are ongoing, Hedge said, but he hopes to have more back-and-forth with the public in an effort to begin building that much-needed trust.

“We want that input,” he said. "If you’ve got questions or concerns, you want to set up a one-on-one meeting — we’ll do that.”