Downtown businesses have had enough.
Fifty-two of them signed a full-page ad in the Star last week, asking city council to hold off with large-scale planning until some more basic issues are dealt with.
The letter, addressed to city council and to the citizenry of Nelson, expresses concern about incremental deterioration of the downtown that includes “parking congestion, panhandling, loitering, open drug use, drug dealing, graffiti, signage bylaw infractions and problems with garbage handling.”
It expresses concern for shoppers, “some of whom no longer feel comfortable or safe going downtown.”
And it explains the challenge of competing with online shopping and big box stores. This is made difficult, the letter states, “if your customer struggles to find parking, is accosted for money by an aggressive panhandler, trips over people sleeping on the sidewalk and then walks through a cloud of marijuana smoke, all the while observing the general decay of the ambience on their way to a store.”
Tom Thomson, executive director of the Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce, described the letter as a grass-roots business initiative, not originating with the Chamber or any other organization, signed by “a solid cross section of the business community.”
“There is concern about drug dealing downtown and smoking downtown, whether cigarettes or joints,” Thomson said. “But it is certainly not just street culture oriented, there are parking issues, and there are concerns about the city not being vigilant on getting signage approvals.”
The letter goes on to ensure its readers that the business people are not callous or uncaring.
“We are not indifferent to the plight of marginalized people,” the letter reads. “We support the efforts to assist them.”
But not at the expense of “our own citizens feeling pushed out and uncomfortable in their own city…”
Thomson said one partial solution to the parking shortage is to have two-hour meters rather than the current one hour, and to install meters on the parts of Hall Street where there are none.
He also recommends that city council pass a smoking bylaw that would restrict smoking tobacco or marijuana in various locations including specific distances from business entrances.
He said businesses also want council to revive the bylaw against aggressive panhandling that was shelved last year.
“The street culture workers are doing a good job,” Thomson said, “but that is only one tool, and we need more than one tool.”
Thomson is recommending an employment program for any of the street people who want to participate.
“I have been working with councillor [Michael] Dailly and the street workers to see if there is some sort of temporary work program, and identify certain projects that could be done.
“We would identify projects on the street, whether it be general tidiness or cleanliness or getting rid of graffiti in the back alleys, and then have those businesses chip in on some kind of a work program, and if there are (people on the street) willing to participate I think the businesses would be willing to work collaboratively with other organizations to see if that could happen.
“We would just say, ‘Here is some work that we need to do. Do you want to make $40 today?’”
He said such an arrangement would have to be agreeable to the city’s unions and he admitted it would be difficult to manage.
Thomson said he agrees with the widely held perception that Nelson offers more services to marginalized people than other communities, and that such people are attracted by this.
“For example the Salvation Army and Our Daily Bread, providing lunches and breakfasts. Those are things people tend to rely on and without those there would be less people saying I am going to hang around here (in Nelson). I believe there are people who come in from outside the area that come here to take advantage of some of those services.”
Police chief to council: step up
Police chief Paul Burkart agrees that Nelson attracts the people the businesses are worried about.
“I know we have people coming from Trail to panhandle because our people here are so generous. This is their place of work, they come here to collect money.”
Burkart said there has not been much of a police presence downtown lately because he is four officers short: one is in training, one has left and is being replaced, and two are off with injuries suffered on the job. He said he will be back to full staffing by mid-June.
He said he has enough staff to cover criminal behaviour but not “nuisance behaviour.”
But even with a full complement of officers he still “needs city counsel to step up” and provide tools, such as a smoking bylaw and the aggressive panhandling bylaw, as well as surveillance cameras on the street.
Burkart added he supports the street outreach team and in fact is a member of the Street Culture Collaborative that created the team.
“But they are not going to solve all the problems that make people panhandle.”
Burkart said he gets several complaints a week about the behaviour of panhandlers and others on the street, “and this is in our off season. During the summer it is going to be worse.”
Rona Park to businesses: step up
The executive director of Nelson Community Services, who is also the brains behind the Street Culture Collaborative, says without the street outreach workers who have been working the downtown streets since last fall, things would probably be worse.
“It has to be understood in relation to all the people who have been helped by the street outreach team, which is 179 people in six months,” Rona Park said.
“This letter was a real expression of the level of frustration in our business community, and they feel not adequately consulted about the changes on Baker Street and have had enough. I did not read it as picking particularly at the street culture population.”
She says there are no easy or single answers.
“It’s not like we have overlooked anything. We have to accept that we are a diverse cultural community with many different and very divergent points of view and wishes about what we want our town to be like. The question is how do we live together as a civil society in this town. We just have to find a way to come to some common agreement on that.”
Park said that missing from the letter were any suggestions for how to change.
“It takes everyone to step up and own the problem, not to blame others. What are they willing to do? I invite business owners: OK, express yourself, but then come forward with some solutions and join together with others.”
Park says she is not against the city trying a panhandling bylaw.
“At his point in time, I don’t care, let’s go ahead and do that, and let’s see how that works. But it might create other issues.”
Mayor to everyone: let’s communicate better
Mayor Deb Kozak says she was surprised by the letter but said she appreciated that it was “written in a respectful tone.”
She said the city will switch some parallel parking to angled parking and “create new stalls in different areas.”
The bus stop at Ward and Baker will move to Victoria St. to create more parking stalls, she said.
“As for building a parkade, they are very expensive: $30,000 to $50,000 per stall, and expensive to maintain. The city owns very little flat, centrally located land, but private landowners do. If a private landowner came forward with an proposal, it would be considered.”
She said the newly hired street outreach workers may have been perceived as the answer and that this issue would go away once they were hired.
“But it is only one part of the solution. We need more tools, so we need bylaw development and more partnership with the business community to tackle this head on.”
She said the smoking bylaw will come before council in June, and she did not say what the city’s plan is for the panhandling bylaw.
She said she wants to set up a large meeting between business people and council to talk about all issues facing the business community and about council’s plans for the city.
“I heard loud and clear that the business community don’t feel they are being heard,” she said.
The letter from the business people expresses a clear lack of faith in council:
“To us, it feels like the City is adversarial towards its business community. Businesses are bound by red tape, delays, indifference and taxes, and get little or no encouragement in return.”
Kozak says the business community is important to the city.
“We are not working against the business community,” she said. “The whole urban design strategy, and the looking into the future of downtown, was done with that in mind.”
She said one of the misunderstandings about the urban design strategy for Baker Street was that it is a done deal and the city is ready to move ahead with it.
“It is a general document that points us in the right direction and sets us up so we can be ready when grants come available,” she said, “so we have an idea of what we are going to do. You don’t get money if you don’t have a plan.
“Let’s get a nice big space and talk about these things.”