UTAH LEGISLATURE

A developer has big plans for the Utah State Hospital property

Feb 29, 2024, 10:41 PM | Updated: Mar 1, 2024, 12:42 pm

PROVO — The latest effort to move the Utah State Hospital has failed.

A provision requiring the hospital to be sold and moved from its current location in Provo was stripped from HB299, a mental health bill that passed the Utah Legislature this week during the final days of the session.

However, this is not the first time lawmakers have considered moving the hospital, and it’s expected to resurface again in the future.

One big reason it keeps popping up? A group is pushing to buy the state-owned land and build a large private development.

KSL TV got an exclusive look at the developer’s plans for the site, which one lawmaker acknowledged is part of his persistent push to urge his colleagues to approve selling the hospital.

But, he added, it’s just one part.

Prime property

The Utah State Hospital is located in east Provo, nestled against the mountains.

“The campus here is a very beautiful, peaceful environment for our patients,” said hospital superintendent Dallas Earnshaw, who has worked there since the 1980s.

But the hospital is a lot older than that. It opened in 1885 as the Territorial Insane Asylum.

Earnshaw showing KSL TV's Daniel Woodruff the Utah State Hospital campus.

Earnshaw showing KSL TV’s Daniel Woodruff the Utah State Hospital campus. (Greg Anderson, KSL TV)

Earnshaw showed off the complex, which serves 313 patients with serious mental illnesses. There are medical facilities, activity rooms, a pediatric unit, and treatment areas for patients. Those patients currently housed at the hospital range from 8 to 83 years old.

Earnshaw said all the patient care facilities have been rebuilt in the last 25 or 30 years. Two of them were finished in 2014. In the past, Earnshaw has used that to argue the state hospital should stay put.

Inside the Utah State Hospital.

Inside the Utah State Hospital. (Greg Anderson, KSL TV)

But Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, disagrees.

“I think the hospital should move,” Hawkins told KSL TV, saying it would be better to have multiple mental health treatment centers throughout Utah. “It’s just really hard to have a central place to take everybody in the state that needs those services.”

Yet, there’s another factor behind his desire to move the hospital.

“I was approached, in full openness, by some developers that want to develop that land,” Hawkins said.

Those developers own Splash Summit Waterpark, which is located right next to the state hospital. One of them, Spencer Shumway, is a constituent of Hawkins who’s donated to him several times.

“I feel like he’s a very visionary individual who has big plans,” Hawkins said.

The Splash Summit Waterpark located in Provo.

The Splash Summit Waterpark located in Provo. (Greg Anderson, KSL TV)

Those plans are indeed big. They propose to buy the state hospital land and build a $1.6 billion development with hotels, restaurants, housing, a ski resort, a new waterpark – even an animation studio.

Asked what he thinks of the plans, Hawkins said, “I think they look awesome. I think that we have an opportunity to develop something in Utah County that would be second to none in the state.”

Especially, he added, if it’s finished before the Winter Olympics in 2034, which are widely expected to return to Utah.

Through their lobbyist, the developers declined a request for an interview to talk about their plans for the hospital property.

Pushback on Capitol hill

On Utah’s Capitol hill – over the last few years – the proposal to move the state hospital has not moved.

“It’s serving people very well where it’s at,” said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who works a lot on mental health issues. “The state hospital’s been there so long that we’ve basically rebuilt the whole thing. We have some quite new units.”

Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, represents the area where the hospital is located.

“I think it would be a really hard argument to make that it is cost effective to move the state hospital at this point,” Thurston said.

The exterior of the Utah State Hospital.

The exterior of the Utah State Hospital. (Greg Anderson, KSL TV)

He estimates it would cost nearly a billion dollars – and he sees no reason why it needs to happen.

“It’s a great location,” Thurston said. “There’s a lot of open space. There’s a lot of room to grow.”

But Hawkins argues moving the hospital could help improve mental health treatment. Besides the money from selling the land, he’d like to see a permanent tax on whatever development is devoted to mental health.

Hawkins said it’s personal for him as he’s struggled with his own mental health after nearly dying from COVID-19 several years ago.

“That’s the idea,” he said, “is to make mental health resources more available throughout the state.”

State response

Back at the hospital, leaders didn’t share their opinions publicly this time. They referred questions to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

“The current location for the Utah State Hospital provides significant advantages with its number of operating buildings and therapeutic environment,” said DHHS spokesperson Danielle Conlon. “We also recognize there are many factors about mental health services in Utah that need to be studied and addressed. We are open to studying these factors to determine the best way to provide and improve mental healthcare available to Utahns.”

The only question is whether that means the hospital will stay or go – and make room for something else.

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A developer has big plans for the Utah State Hospital property