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In our opinion: Solving the problems at Pioneer Park

Published: Monday, Sept. 9 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Subway serves a free lunch to nearly 1,100 needy people at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City Wednesday, June 5, 2013. Local Subway restaurants and the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake teamed to raise awareness of the problems facing Salt Lake’s homeless and low-income families.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Some problems are easy to solve, while others take a lot of work. And then there are problems that stubbornly persist despite the best efforts to make them go away. Such is the case with the challenges facing Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park.

A seemingly endless tug of war continues between the forces that make the park a magnet for an indigent, crime-prone population, and those that would convert it to an integral part of an upscale downtown district. Money has been spent and many well-intention campaigns have been commissioned, but the park remains a Jekyll and Hyde kind of place, a tale of two cities within a city — one up and coming and the other down and out.

The challenge facing Salt Lake City government is to avoid falling into a state of resignation and accepting the situation as permanent. Instead, it should regard addressing it as a much higher civic priority than it currently seems to be.

This summer, the nature of the park's identity crisis has become more visible than ever. On Saturdays, it is home to a thriving farmer's market. On Thursday evenings, throngs show up for the successful Twilight Concert series. In between, it reverts quickly to its darker side, a gathering place for the destitute and disenfranchised and the scene of frequent crime.

The fact that the park is attractive to segments of the homeless population is part of the problem, but only part. The city has done tremendous work in recent years to address chronic homelessness, and has seen that population consequently shrink. The creation of the Police Department's Homeless Outreach Service Team is an example of a forward thinking policy that has been effective in helping find long-term solutions for individuals who bounce between shelters and spending nights on the streets or in the park.

A thornier problem is the prevalence of drug trafficking. People who live and work around the park say they have noticed a sharp uptick in recent months in drug dealing. The truth of the matter is many of the homeless who frequent the park are homeless because of drug dependency. Drug dealers know that, and they will go to ply their trade where their customers are.

The situation invites consideration of a high profile, full-court campaign of zero tolerance. Utah law allows for enhanced penalties for drug peddling in public parks. Strict and continuous enforcement of those statutes could make a difference.

Yes, it would take a large commitment of law enforcement resources, and police will say they already have a significant presence at the park. That is true, but is it significant enough to keep drug dealers from prowling the perimeter? According to those most familiar with the area, apparently not.

In recent years, the surrounding area has seen an investment in retail establishments, restaurants and residential properties. It has become a hip pocket of urban culture that is especially attractive to young professionals. And because Pioneer Park is a central component of the neighborhood, its status as either a safe or scary place will influence whether that resurgent prosperity continues.

If the city fails to articulate a long-term strategy for the park, it essentially sends the message it regards the problems as unsolvable, and such an attitude will have consequences well beyond the park's boundaries.

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