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Save the Rio 

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Save the Rio

Where government is concerned, taxpayers often ponder why the right hand doesn’t know what the other right hand is doing. It’s most noticeable when utility crews dig up fresh pavement or when parklands are sold off to out-of-state developers. But here in Salt Lake City, something has recently come up that is so dumb it leaves us practically speechless.

To get perspective on the stupidity involved here, you have to go back to 1980 when 200 South, west of 300 West, was not only a red light district but also home to the toughest joints and characters this side of Denver. In this neighborhood of prostitutes, drug pushers, drunks and dilapidated warehouses, the state of Utah found itself in ownership of the refurbished Rio Grand Depot—an historical structure in a terrible neighborhood.

State officials sought to rent out the space that had once been the Rio Grand Coffee Shop. They put out a “request for proposal” for the space. But Pete Henderson and his partner were the only ones who showed up. Nobody in his right mind (sorry Pete) wanted anything to do with Rio Grande Avenue west of 400 West and just south of 200 South.

In Nov. 1981, Pete opened the Rio Grande Café. It’s been an uphill battle. In the early ‘80s, then-Mayor Palmer DePaulis determined to locate a group of homeless facilities in the area. The combination of a shelter, a soup kitchen, a park and a liquor store meant the neighborhood would continue to be, shall we say, unglamorous. But slowly, the Rio built a loyal clientele who kept coming back for the tacos, enchiladas and carnitas, for the margaritas and for the atmosphere of the old depot, its funky counter and the wonderful weight staff that seemed to live there.

Then finally, things began looking up in the neighborhood. Tony Caputo’s opened up the street where a condominium project is also going in. The Gateway came along and so did the Bridges Housing Project. But just as the ‘hood was lookin’ good, state officials informed Pete that they would not sign the five-year lease they had sent him and only would extend his stay for 12 months. The writing, as it were, is on the wall. State bureaucrats want to turn the Rio Grande Café into a storage archive.

It’s almost too stupid to be true. But when you place these events against the backdrop of downtown Salt Lake City fighting for survival, it simply boggles the mind. Why in the world would we, the taxpayers, erase this great gathering place for an archive?

Would somebody please call Mayor Rocky Anderson and Gov. Mike Leavitt? We simply have to save the Rio—period, amen, the end.

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More by Christopher Smart

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