Operation Rio Grande deserves our support; it is making a difference and addressing one of our state’s biggest problems.
For over 18 years I have lived or worked in the Pioneer Park/Rio Grande neighborhood. In 2008 I moved my store at the time, LatterDayBride & Prom, to the south end of The Gateway, directly across from the homeless shelter.
While there I interacted frequently with those experiencing homelessness. There were regulars in the area I came to know well. Four years ago, however, I started to notice a significant change in the demographic of the neighborhood. There was an influx of criminals and those looking only for drugs.
I became more and more frustrated with the lawlessness that overwhelmed the neighborhood. If you did not see it firsthand, you will have a hard time believing how bad things became.
Unfortunately, too many of our community leaders came to accept the status quo or chose not to see it. They had given up on providing residents and businesses here with the same level of basic safety every neighborhood in Utah should have.
During this time my lease with The Gateway expired. While I didn’t want to move, I could not stay; the anarchy was simply too much. So last September I moved to a spot immediately north of Pioneer Park. It was not far from where I had been because I wanted to be part of the solution in helping this area thrive.
Many questioned my decision. When things became worse than I had ever seen during the first half of this year, I questioned my own decision.
Finally, this summer it felt like someone heard us and wanted to make a difference. Many of our political leaders came to the area to see things firsthand. In fact, I saw one of those interested leaders — Speaker of the House Greg Hughes — on the streets here many times.
And now their efforts are paying off.
Operation Rio Grande has completely changed the character of the neighborhood. For the first time in a long while it feels safe to walk the streets. The open-air drug market is gone. I don’t feel anxious every day about the safety of my employees and customers.
But I would not feel comfortable with this change — and neither would my neighbors — if it came only because the homeless were being booted from our area. Fortunately, the numbers of people seeking services at the shelter, the kitchen, the clinic are still the same.
Operation Rio Grande is succeeding by kicking out the criminals and drug traffickers while allowing those interested in help to remain.
Now this effort has not been perfect. From past experience we know that law enforcement alone will not be enough to sustain this effort. There are still problems in the area. Just the other day I had to call the police about someone lost in drugs and alcohol on my steps. But the police responded and political leaders continue to listen and plan to address these shortcomings.
To me, this is leadership. The Rio Grande area did not need any more studies or drawn out discussions. It needed action, with its accompanying bumps and setbacks.
I hope political leaders will appreciate the great work they have accomplished, even while they accept that these changes will not stick without continued involvement and further work on treatment, jobs, and housing.
If they do, they deserve the support of all of us. They really are resolving one of our state’s biggest embarrassments.
Nicole Thomas is the founder and CEO of Gateway Bridal and LatterDayBride.com LLC. She serves on the executive board for The Pioneer Park Coalition.