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Pioneer Park marking reopening

Fun starts Saturday morning and runs until 10:30 p.m.

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Recent improvements to Pioneer Park are a hit with Ruben and Velka.

Park newcomers Abby and Lucy seem to like them, too.

A half-dozen dogs and their owners took advantage of the sunny and pleasantly breezy weather Thursday afternoon to relax and mingle at the newest canine hot spot.

A fenced, off-leash dog park is among the $1.5 million in improvements recently completed at Pioneer Park.

"We started using it before it was finished," said Megan Hancey, a downtown resident and owner of Boston terriers Ruben and Velka. "I was really excited when they were putting it in."

For the past few weeks, Hancey has been taking her dogs to Pioneer Park about four times a week. She'll likely frequent the park more after Saturday when the dog park officially opens.

"It's very convenient," Hancey said, "and they definitely need exercise."

The new dog park will be one of the improvements highlighted during an all-day grand reopening celebration Saturday at the downtown park bordered by 300 South, 300 West, 400 South and 400 West.

"We're saying welcome back to Pioneer Park and to everyone," said event organizer Mickelle Weber, who lives and works near the park. "There were fences around the park all winter. Now it's open again with all the new improvements."

In addition to the dog park, the city has put in new sidewalks, benches, lights and a walking and jogging path. Old trees were removed and new ones were planted.

"I think all the improvements will help highlight just how cool our neighborhood is and what an advantage it is to have the park there," Weber said.

The new off-leash dog area attracted John Thueson to the park, along with his boxer mixes Abby and Lucy. Thueson, who lives in the Avenues, said he had never been to Pioneer Park before but wanted to try out the dog park.

"It's a place they can run and a place where the people they come in contact with aren't terrified of them," he said.

Saturday's festivities get under way at 8 a.m. with the first Downtown Farmers Market of the season. The market, which will run Saturdays through Oct. 18, brings together a variety of farmers, growers, bakers and local artisans selling their wares.

The opening of the dog park, a free dinner, a prize drawing and an outdoor movie will keep the party at the park going until about 10:30 p.m.

Those types of events must continue in the future in order for Pioneer Park to shed its reputation of being overrun with criminals illegally buying and selling drugs, said Salt Lake City Councilman Luke Garrott.

"Yes, it's a new day for the park," Garrott said, "but we need to think in terms of continuity. The celebrations will go away on Sunday, and we need to think in terms of day-to-day ways to keep the park attractive and safe for all users. That's going to be an ongoing challenge."

Neighboring residents, business owners and others interested in Pioneer Park have been meeting with city officials for several weeks as part of Mayor Ralph Becker's Salt Lake Solutions initiative.

The group has been brainstorming ideas for activities at the park in an effort to reclaim the green space as a community gathering place.

"If we get enough people using the park for a variety of uses, it will generate its own spirit and sense of place that is welcoming for everybody," Becker said.

In addition to the farmers market on Saturdays, the Utah Bocce Association is planning bocce and barbecue events on Sundays, and yoga or Tai Chi will be taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The 4th Street Clinic running club plans to use the new track, and an afternoon walk-and-talk with Becker or members of his staff are planned for Mondays.

Several local businesses also have committed to have their company parties and events at the park, said Michelle Straube, a member of the Salt Lake Solutions team.

"We're encouraging the whole neighborhood to use the park in the way they would use a neighborhood park," Straube said.

Another idea still in the works is an SLC Film Center summer movie series.

Earlier this month, the Salt Lake City Council extended the downtown park's hours to 11 p.m. between May 1 and Sept. 30, allowing for public events in the evenings.

Salt Lake police have committed to maintain a presence in the park — especially after dark — to make sure only legal activities are taking place.

The homeless population sheltered in close proximity to the park also is blamed for driving some people away from the park in recent years. While Hancey and Thueson let their dogs run free in the newly fenced area, a few dozen day-campers slept on benches, picnic tables and grassy areas.

"In all urban settings, you have poverty," Garrott said, "and parks have all sorts of users."

The challenge, he said, is getting to the point where all park users respect each other and their rights to be there.

"Yes, we can drive out the criminal element, but we also need all of these diverse users to be civil toward one another," Garrott said. "That's going to take more than the hand of the police."

Weber said she spends a lot of time at the park — running, walking her dog and utilizing the free wireless Internet while enjoying a picnic lunch. The stigma that Pioneer Park is a scary place, she said, is outdated and inaccurate.

"People need to try it out for themselves instead of assuming it's a bad place," Weber said, "because that's not true."

Pioneer Park grand reopening

Saturday's events:

8 a.m. to 1 p.m. — Downtown Farmers Market

2 p.m. to 6 p.m. — Grand opening of dog park

6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. — Dinner (free to first 100 people)

7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. — Prize drawing and outdoor movie

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com