SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Greg Hughes faced the ire of angry Ballpark residents during the neighborhood's Community Council meeting Thursday night.
There was Chris Derbidge, a father who started walking his 12-year-old daughter to the bus stop near 1200 S. West Temple because drug dealers started showing up after Operation Rio Grande began in August.
"Did you realize the drug dealers you were pushing out of there were going to be dealing drugs outside my daughter's school bus every day?" Derbidge asked Hughes.
"I can't tell you what it does to a parent's mind to have to walk their kid to school every day and see more drugged up homeless victims, as everybody wants to call them, than seeing children when you know there are more children in your neighborhood."
Derbidge said he had to email, take photographs and call "everybody from the school board to the governor to the mayor for weeks" before he saw "a single police officer" show up at his daughter's bus stop.
Then Michelle Goldberg, owner of Diggity Dog day care, spoke up. Her business will be across the street from the entrance to the mixed-gender homeless resource center, previously referred to as the 275 W. High Ave. shelter — that is, until architectural plans revealed its front door would be on Paramount Avenue.
"How is it all of a sudden that this entrance is now 35 feet from my front door?" Goldberg said. "This is my life; I have put every last penny into my business."
Hughes certainly hasn't been the sole player responsible for Operation Rio Grande — the effort to bring Salt Lake City's most troubled and crime-riddled neighborhood back under control — and the city and county's plans to build three new homeless resource centers to disperse the population of the Road Home's 1,100-bed homeless shelter downtown.
But the speaker nonetheless attended Thursday night's community meeting to field questions and hear concerns about the effort.
When he arrived for the meeting, Ballpark Community Council Vice Chairwoman Amy Hawkins handed him a stack of photographs taken by various Ballpark residents since Operation Rio Grande began.
The photographs included piles of trash, mangled bicycles blocking sidewalks, shopping carts full of belongings, broken windows, graffiti on fences and walls, people sleeping in blankets and sleeping bags spread out in parking lots and alleys.
"These are taken from people's front doors, sidewalks, children's bus stops," Hawkins told Hughes as she handed him the photos. "I don't think you'll be entirely surprised, but I just want you to understand visually what's coming into our neighborhood and what we're having to protect from our children."
Hughes, while telling his story of why he felt Operation Rio Grande was needed — how he watched a man fall to the ground, bleeding from his head after being hit with a piece of rebar just a few feet away from a stroller with a baby inside — held up one of those pictures as he addressed Ballpark residents.
It was a woman giving the photographer the middle finger.
"I would get this all day, every day," Hughes said, as he would tour the area and hold meetings at a storefront in the neighborhood while talking with stakeholders on how to tackle the crime and open-air drug market, before Operation Rio Grande.
Hughes said he wasn't going to get "defensive" or "angry" in response to Ballpark's resident's ire because he and other state leaders knew the "dispersion" from Operation Rio Grande would impact surrounding neighborhoods, and that's why he said leaders need residents' help.
"I want you to fight for this neighborhood," Hughes said. "I want you to take these pictures. I want you to call the police. I want you to inundate us with what you're seeing."
Several residents echoed a request from City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who asked that the state help fund street lighting as a mitigating factor for Operation Rio Grande and the homeless resource center.18 comments on this story
Hughes said that was one aspect the state could consider while negotiating with Salt Lake City, but he didn't make any promises. His answers didn't seem to quell concerns.
"I know everybody's mad," Hughes said. "It's OK. I want you to channel that and let these issues percolate to the top so that your policymakers, your public servants can hear what's going on."
Hughes said the "human carnage" in the Rio Grande area couldn't continue to go on uninterrupted — and even though he knew state, city and county leaders would be criticized no matter what they did, he said something had to be done.