SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said a stepped-up effort to clean up downtown's Rio Grande area should transform Pioneer Park into a safe place that residents can once again enjoy without fear.
"If we work together, in a year I will be out there playing tennis at Pioneer Park," Herbert said Thursday during his monthly KUED news conference.
The governor also said he's willing to call a special session of the Utah Legislature if necessary to put the proper steps in motion to rid Rio Grande of its drug dealing, vagrants and public health problems.
The downtown area, Herbert emphasized, has the highest crime rate in the state.
"When someone can go down there and play tennis on that old tennis court, that defines success," he said.
Herbert said he plans to direct a multi-agency response that includes the Utah departments of health and workforce services, as well as multi-jurisdictional law enforcement.
"We are moving ahead in terms of execution now," he said.
The governor said the state is focusing on a collaborative approach that includes bed space and medical treatment, and coming up with 300 extra beds — possibly by reopening Oxbow Jail.
Oxbow has been largely mothballed since 2009 and its resurrection, according to county officials, would cost about $9 million for repairs and ongoing maintenance.
Herbert didn't detail how much the effort will cost, and there were no specifics on the ramped-up police activity to counter even minor crimes such as public intoxication. But he made it clear that municipal, county and state agencies working in "silos" to solve the problem needs to end.
"Believe me, we are going to do it," the governor said. "First and foremost, we are going to take back the streets, take back Pioneer Park and take back the Rio Grande area."
The Legislature kicked in $9.25 million this year as the first installment in a broad, three-year initiative to address the homeless issue.
Lawmakers also appropriated some money toward affordable housing.
GOP leadership, notably House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, has said the homeless problem is spiraling out of control and needs more immediate attention.
Violence in Pioneer Park and the surrounding neighborhoods is on the uptick.
A man was found shot to death on the west side of the park early Wednesday, a day after police say a man armed with a paving stone attacked several people, including one man who died from head injuries.
Over the July Fourth holiday, a homeless man attacked and injured a professional baseball player, and in a separate incident, a woman motorist plowed into a group of six pedestrians on a sidewalk a block away from the homeless shelter.
Also Thursday, Herbert reiterated his endorsement of John Curtis as the GOP candidate in the 3rd District congressional race, emphasizing that "we need someone who can get something done."
Herbert criticized the negative advertising campaigns using out-of-state money to attack Curtis' character.
"I'm disappointed," he said. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: amyjoi16