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Victoria businesses walk a tightrope over perception of downtown

While businesses are hearing negative perceptions of downtown, they are also dealing with the day-to-day reality that it isn’t all doom and gloom.
Traffic along Victoria's Wharf Street. Downtown businesses continue to face challenges dealing with crime, homelessness and mental-health issues. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Victoria’s downtown businesses say they are walking a tightrope as they struggle with addressing crime and street concerns while not wanting to needlessly alarm people about safety issues when they come downtown to shop and enjoy the city centre.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Jessica Walker, managing partner at Munro’s Books on Government Street. “I think everyone who is in business downtown is also conscious about not wanting to contribute too much to the negative. But on the other hand, the frustration is real.”

Walker said they are dealing with challenges such as petty crime, vandalism, harassment and littering — both garbage and worse — in shop doorways, due to the number of people with mental-health and addiction problems living downtown on the streets or in supportive housing.

“The real frustration that we’re feeling is that if this was in any other community, it wouldn’t be acceptable — if someone was camping on someone’s front porch in Fairfield that wouldn’t be acceptable,” she said.

Walker said that while they hear about the negative perception of downtown, they are also dealing with the day-to-day reality that it isn’t all doom and gloom. “Business is good, customers are happy, and when we’re dealing with customers in the store, it’s not something that we get a lot of feedback on.”

That’s also the story in other corners of downtown.

“Downtown is suffering, empty offices, street people, but on the other side, it’s hard to explain, it’s busy,” said Outlooks For Men owner Dale Olsen. “While some people are avoiding downtown, hundreds of others are moving there. And more are coming.”

Olsen said Victoria’s street problems are not unique as most cities in the country are dealing with the same thing and it’s symptomatic of a growing centre.

“I still don’t feel downtown is dangerous or dying. It’s simply in transition, always is, this just happens to be a rough patch,” he said.

Douglas Bourque, general manager of The Market Stores, said the traffic at the Market On Yates store has remained strong and whatever negative perception that’s out there about downtown doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on their business.

“I don’t think the people who wish to enjoy the downtown area will be deterred that much by what they read or see in the media,” Bourque said.

Erin Boggs, partner in Robinson’s Outdoor Store on Broad Street, added that while the store is doing really well they experience shoplifting several times a week and their frustration is growing.

“I always try and be really positive because we really want people to come downtown,” she said.

Boggs said business owners are having to focus on community safety instead of selling their merchandise or services.

Boggs has hired security and considered a number of expensive infrastructure upgrades such as doors on changing rooms and new security tags. She has spoken with other business owners about hiring security for Broad Street.

“We’re just trying to do everything we can to ensure that our doors can stay open and we can keep our staff safe,” she said. “And so that means more of an investment on our end and more vigilance and more staff, so it’s more of a cost to the small businesses.”

While it’s a challenge, Boggs said they are still trying to find that delicate balance about raising their concerns and not wanting to scare people away from downtown.

“That’s why we’ve always remained really positive and not really spoken about it; it’s such a fine line,” she said. “But at the same time, this is the reality. And as businesses take on more expenses, whether it comes to medical or the sick days or all these things that the government is imposing, you know, obviously we would like more support.”

That was part of the message delivered this past week to city council by Jeff Bray, chief executive of the Downtown Victoria Business Association.

Bray, whose job it is to be positive and optimistic about downtown, couldn’t help but touch on the fact downtown continues to struggle with crime, homelessness and mental health issues.

He conceded the topic of street disorder and crime has become the dominant issue among his membership.

“We can’t pretend that it’s not,” Bray told council during his presentation. “And for our members it’s a question of fatigue.”

He said it’s been clear that city council is trying to take the issue seriously and has taken steps toward dealing with it, but he stressed that the DVBA membership has been dealing with the problem for years. “The level of fatigue among business owners, property owners is getting very high.” He noted that business owners have heard the city is offering grants to deal with vandalism and that there are new funding measures included in this year’s budget to pay for revitalization projects downtown.

“But I think they are really looking for a strong signal that their voice and their frustrations, their concerns for their livelihoods, their concerns, most importantly for their staff, are being acknowledged,” Bray said. “Because some of them are starting to think about going somewhere else.”

He acknowledged that there is only so much the city can do since mental-health and complex-care solutions are the province’s domain.

And he acknowledged there has been some movement on the complex-care front. This week, Premier David Eby announced funding for police, prosecutors and probation officers to work together to tackle repeat violent offenders

Bray offered a few suggestions, including adopting a façade improvement program, like Esquimalt has, which would be a partnership of the city, businesses and property owners to help spruce up parts of the downtown, and creating block champions to bring blocks of retailers together to take more ownership over their shared space.

Both councillors Dave Thompson and Jeremy Caradonna said they’ve heard council criticized for not doing enough to deal with downtown’s problems, a suggestion Caradonna said is unfair. “I feel like we’re just completely devoted to this downtown, but it’s maybe just not landing,” he said, noting council has pledged about $1 million in new funding for downtown improvement, made downtown parks a priority and offered funding for a number of local festivals.

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