SALT LAKE CITY — Almost exactly a year ago, Pioneer Park was a hotbed for homeless campers and drug dealing.
But Wednesday, it was a different scene in Salt Lake City's infamous Rio Grande neighborhood.
While some people still slept in the shade of the park's mature trees, it was a decidedly mellower than years past as city and business leaders gathered for a news conference to announce a nearly $1 million effort "to change the narrative" for the troubled block.
"We are here to celebrate the beginning of a new era for Pioneer Park," Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said.
Last year, when state leaders were gearing up for the launch of Operation Rio Grande — a multi-agency effort to end the lawlessness and drug dealing that ran rampant in the Rio Grande area — Gov. Gary Herbert said he hoped Pioneer Park would be transformed within the year, and he'd be "out there playing tennis."
When celebrating the groundbreaking of a new multipurpose field at Pioneer Park Wednesday, Biskupski welcomed Herbert not only to the tennis courts but also to the new field when its finished by next spring.
"Maybe he'd be willing to come down and kick a few soccer balls," the mayor said.
The area where the new multipurpose lawn, which city officials say will be slightly larger than a full-sized soccer field, has been fenced off for construction. Everything within that perimeter — the park's old restrooms and about 50 trees — is slated to be removed to make way for the field, according to Kristin Riker, deputy director of the city's public services department.
Everything outside the construction area will remain accessible, including the dog park, playground, tennis courts, basketball courts and other sports areas. The Downtown Farmers Market will also continue to be held at the park for the rest of the season.
In addition to the field, the parks department will be installing lighting and a 10-foot wide concrete sidewalk around the new lawn, Riker said.
Of the roughly 50 trees that will be removed, Riker said most "are not very healthy or are very old and need to be taken out anyway." However, she acknowledged the four large and thriving sycamore trees currently standing in the heart of the park will be removed.
Those sycamores date back to the 1980s, according to the city's forester, Tony Gliot. Riker said the city looked into transplanting the trees, but it decided against it because of a $100,000 price tag and the 1-in-4 chances that the trees would survive.
"Those trees will be replaced," Riker added, noting that the parks department will be planting 23 new sycamore trees around the perimeter of the park's new walkway.
The new field and its lighting will "undoubtedly breathe new life into Pioneer Park," Biskupski said.
"As a community, we have done so much to change the narrative of this area, and this project is one more sign of these efforts," the mayor said. "We are truly in this together, and I am very grateful to all of you for sticking with us as we work through some difficult situations."
The entire project will cost about $950,000, Riker said.
About $300,000 of that was donated to the city by the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group of downtown business leaders that has long sought improved safety around the park.
David Garbett, executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, thanked city officials and the coalition's members for making the project possible — and included a special thanks to Larry H. Miller Cos. owner Gail Miller, who Garbett said donated a "lion's share" of the $300,000.
Jay Francis, executive vice president of corporate affairs and Miller family philanthropy, spoke on behalf of Miller, who he said didn't attend Wednesday's groundbreaking because of a family meeting.
"Gail's comment early on was, 'Make the park what it needs to be, but also let's help the homeless in the area. Let's just not kick them out,'" Francis said, crediting the Pioneer Park Coalition and the city for being "good partners."
Garbett said when state officials launched Operation Rio Grande last year, it made an "incredible difference" in Pioneer Park, and so the Pioneer Park Coalition's members hoped to continue that "momentum."
"I think you can only ask the cops to do so much to chase the bad guys out of the neighborhood," Garbett said.
He added that Pioneer Park still has "problems" and is "by no means the safest place in the state," but "it's been a huge improvement."
Riker said construction is slated to be completed by this winter.