SALT LAKE CITY — There's a reason why police say a man accused of shooting and killing University of Utah student ChenWei Guo headed straight to the Rio Grande neighborhood to ditch his gun, according to Scott Howell.
"That's the first place he went to — Pioneer Park," the Pioneer Park Coalition member said Monday. "That's the culture. … That's where (criminals) migrate."
Members of the coalition hope to change the downtown park's reputation for drug dealing, drug use, urban camping and crime during a time of "inertia" for the neighborhood surrounding the troubled homeless shelter, Howell said.
The area, he said, has undoubtedly improved since the August launch of Operation Rio Grande, when state and city law enforcement started working together to put an end to the open-air drug market, violence and crime that plagued the neighborhood's streets.
"I'm enthused," Howell told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Monday. "I think we're at a tipping point where we need to continue."
Now, families need to come back to the park, he said.
To build on Operation Rio Grande's momentum, the Pioneer Park Coalition has committed to donate $300,000 to fund improvements to the park — including a multi-use field and lighted walkway — to help draw more visitors and rid the park of its reputation for drugs and crime, said David Garbett, executive director of the coalition.
"Pioneer Park, we think, could be a jewel that attracts people to the neighborhood," he said.
After the $300,000 commitment from the Pioneer Park Coalition, the Salt Lake City Council earlier this month approved a $544,000 budget amendment to use capital improvement funds to begin construction this winter on a project to help revitalize the park.
The existing shuttered restrooms — often used for shelter, drugs or other illegal activity — are slated to be torn out and replaced with a multi-use turf field, surrounded by a concrete walkway, and a plaza area for community events, according to a Salt Lake City staff report. The $300,000 donation will fund lighting around the field and walkway.
Garbet acknowledged $300,000 is "literally a drop in the bucket for what needs to happen at that park," but he views the winter improvements as a "start to the conversation to get something happening."
"We need a change of culture," coalition board member Tiffanie Provost said, calling Operation Rio Grande the "first phase" of improving the park's reputation.
Now, Provost said the city and the neighborhood group need to focus on investing in the park, while efforts continue to overhaul the city and county's homeless system.
Though the June 2019 closure of the Road Home's downtown shelter and opening of the three new homeless resource centers is more than a year and a half away, coalition member Dave Kelly said now is "one of the most opportune times" to revitalize Pioneer Park.
"There is still a long road to go from here," he acknowledged, "but how do you keep the momentum? How do you keep the pressure on to keep things moving forward? We start (investing), we start getting families to come down, we start programming the park better."
The coalition members envision a public-private partnership, similar to how Bryant Park in New York and Millenium Park in Chicago are managed. The city would own the park and set the rules, while a private entity such as a nonprofit would program the park and organize events.3 comments on this story
Howell said the coalition also envisions an "education center" at the park — maybe a charter school or independent school where parents who work downtown could take their children.
Garbett said the park is already seeing improvement during days when it's used for certain events such as the Twilight Concert Series and farmer's markets, but he said the park needs to be used every day to help change its reputation. As more families return, the less the park will be used for illegal activities, he said.
"Do we think it can be safe?" he said. "Yes, for sure."