Groups seek funding to see what it would take to turn Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande Depot into a year-round public market

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Rio Grande Depot

What would it cost to turn Salt Lake City’s historic Rio Grande Depot into a year-round public market — something akin to Pike Place in Seattle or Reading Terminal in Philadelphia?

The Salt Lake Chamber and the Downtown Alliance want to know. So they asked the Legislature on Tuesday for $300,000 to pay for a feasibility study of the 100-plus-year-old historic train station.

"The funding would be used to analyze the state of the building and how a market might fit inside,” Alison Einerson, told members of the Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee.

Experts would study the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, seismic status, historic renovation possibilities and market design, said Einerson, executive director of Urban Food Connections, which operates the alliance’s Downtown Farmers Market at Pioneer Park and — for the past seven years — the Winter Market at the Rio Grande Depot.

The depot’s location, next to the intermodal hub for TRAX and FrontRunner, said Einerson, “will make it a daily shopping destination for people who work and live downtown as well as be a draw for tourists.”

The $300,000 request piggybacks capital improvements the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts has requested for fiscal 2021, said Jacey Skinner, vice president of public policy for the Salt Lake Chamber.

“We are not asking the Legislature to commit to this project right now," she said, but "we do want to see if this is an appropriate use for the project and what a partnership with the state [which owns the depot] would look like.

“This is the first step,” she added, "to knowing whether the building can handle something like this, and if it is the highest and best use.”

It’s just one piece of the redevelopment planned for the area, which has been the focus of Operation Rio Grande, a multiagency effort to improve safety in the neighborhood.

On Monday, construction crews began tearing down The Road Home’s former shelter, just north of the depot. The state is expected to sell the 1.17-acre property, considered a prime area for new development as downtown expands westward.

The depot will be vacant in a few years, when the Department of Heritage and Arts moves into a new state office building to be constructed north of the Capitol, said department spokesman Josh Loftin. The department’s administrative offices, the Rio Gallery, the basement archives and state history collections are expected to move into the new space.

This isn’t the first time the Rio Grande Depot has been studied for a year-round market, said Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy. “I’ve been in many meetings with the city, which wanted to develop this 14 years ago. Can’t we dig out some of those studies?”

Einerson noted that those studies were done before the planned Heritage Arts move, so a more comprehensive look at the space is needed.

“This is a fantastic project, and I’m very much in favor of it,” said Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, "but are there other ways to pay for the study other than from state funds? We are just in a year where every dollar is precious, and we have to spend the money wisely. I’m struggling to see where this would be a top priority for this year.”

No vote was taken on the request.