A lot of people - including business proprietors and city officials - will tell you that Salt Lake City's downtown region is not an appealing place to be, at least part of the time.
Wary shoppers are being approached, they say, by panhandlers and drunks. There are incidents involving trespassing, theft, loitering, and littering.Those, in turn, are hurting the downtown economy because people would rather go shopping in the malls and suburban areas, where they are less apt to encounter unsavory situations like public intoxication and persistent panhandling.
A committee has been created to try to deal with the problem - a committee born of frustration and irritation. Mayor Palmer DePaulis assembled officials, businessmen, and concerned citizens to look for ways to counter some of the negative situations.
But the committee members haven't always agreed on how to fight the problems - or even what all of the problems are.
As part of the battle, inexpensive fortified wines will be removed from three liquor stores for the duration of a study to see if such a strategy helps.
The study began this month, although the targeted fortified wines are still on the shelves. June will serve as a "control" month.
During July and August, the wines will not be available in the three stores closest to the downtown area.
Officials hope that removing the fortified wine will have some kind of positive impact on the downtown area.
Call me naive, but when I first heard the expression "fortified wine," I had no idea what it meant. I had a hazy vision of wine that was enriched in some way - like loaves of iron- or vitamin-fortified bread.
Finally, I called Errol Remington, treatment coordinator for the Salt Lake County Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Service Division, for an explanation.
Fortified wine is, basically, a concoction that packs an extra alcohol punch. Wine that goes through a normal fermentation process, according to Remington, contains a maximum of 121/2 percent alcohol.
"Fortified wine is roughtly double the alcohol content of most wines," Remington said. By some mysterious process, an extra 6 or 7 percent alcohol is added in, for a limit of 17 percent.
The old joke about the 25-cent-a-gallon jug of firewater is not quite right. Not all fortified wines are cheap - and inebriated transients are not the only people with a penchant for the liquor.
But the wines that are being removed from the store shelves for the study - and possibly for the duration, depending on what they find - are the cheaper wines, those that appeal particularly to Utah's low-income, somewhat unstable population. Any fortified wine that costs $2.50 or less for 750 millilitres or less than $4 a half-gallon will be removed.
At the same time, consideration is being given to a "panhandler card." If proponents can ever agree on the content of the card, it could be available very soon.
A panhandler card looks a little like a business card, and it is designed so that people who are approached by beggars can give them a card, instead of money.
In Salt Lake, two basic approaches to the card are being debated.
One version, which would most likely be distributed by an organization like the United Way, would contain information for the panhandler, telling him where to get a hot meal, shelter and other services.
The other version, being suggested by several area businessmen, is for the public. It tells how to refuse the panhandler.
Either version provides something to give the beggar, in lieu of money. But philosophically, they are miles apart.
One says "I won't give you money, but I will show you how to get the things you say you want the money to buy." The other basically says, "Leave me alone. I'm not going to give you money and I wish you'd go away." Both approaches represent very real, strong viewpoints.
Only time will tell what impact the committee's ideas will have on downtown. I admit I'm curious to see what happens. And a little embarrassed to admit that I've never had a problem with either public inebriates or panhandlers, although I work in the heart of the city. Maybe I look too poor.
But I do know this: Businessmen claim they are being hurt. And, Utah can't take much more in the way of economic pain. The next two months, as the debate unfolds on what to do, should be interesting.