Despite foot patrols and some revitalization efforts, many North Battleford residents are increasingly fed up with the crime-ridden downtown area.
Among local residents who do business downtown, frustration with vagrancy, drunkenness and rundown and empty buildings is clearly evident, with radical solutions being suggested to address it.
One of those unhappy with the situation is Fi Smythe, a local resident who says she was the victim recently of sexual harassment on the downtown streets while using a local bank downtown during the afternoon.
She said that about three months ago, while coming out of the bank one of those on the street approached her and said “I want to f--- you” to her face.
“I just stood there for a minute because I couldn’t be sure I heard that correctly,” said Smythe, who said the individual came forward to try to grab hold of her before she managed to get into her truck and get away.
She said the incident happened right in front of a number of other people. She says she believes they were just as shocked by what they’d seen.
On the urging of a friend she eventually filed a report with the police, but noted the police are fairly hamstrung in what they can do.
Later, though, Smythe said an incident happened again and this time she almost got hit by a car trying to get away from that person, who again tried to grab her and followed her down the street.
She said she wrote to Mayor Ian Hamilton saying it should not be simply the jurisdiction of the police to clear people from the streets. She noted in Saskatoon there is a “bylaw specifically stopping that sort of thing happening.”
“It’s about danger, it’s about peoples’ safety,” said Smythe.
She admits she was shaken by the incidents.
“I moved here a year ago, and I’ve lived all over the world, so I’m not a shrinking violet. I don’t frighten easily.”
Another concerned about the situation downtown is stylist Kris Cook of the Lavish Hair Salon on 100th Street. He is happy at his current location, close to the downtown, but said he had at one point been thinking of buying space available at a couple of buildings on 101st Street.
He ultimately, and firmly, decided against it. “There’s no way I would buy a space on 101st Street, because my clients wouldn’t feel safe,” said Cook.
“I’ve heard a lot of bad stories about things that go on from people who’ve owned businesses on 101st Street,” said Cook.
He said he heard stories of people having to lock out vagrants in their front entrances so that they wouldn’t get into the actual buildings. “
That’s not for me. I want to know that my business is safe when I’m gone for the night,” Cook said.
“There’s too much vagrancy on 101st.”
He says his current location is much better for his customers, who are able to enter through back alley access from a private parking lot, instead of having to enter off the street.
Cook adds his clients say they still do not feel safe downtown and won’t go to the banks after hours.
Cook says he doesn’t have the answers for what will fix the situation but does know what will not work.
“I don’t think denial is the solution,” says Cook.
He says part of the solution might be attracting more retailers downtown, but sees a problem in that area.
“A lot of it is now office space that will never be retail again,” said Cook, who says it is difficult to revitalize a downtown when that is the situation.
“Those buildings are offices and will always be offices.”
Downtown North Battleford is known as the business centre for the city and the prime location for the city’s banks. Unfortunately, vagrancy, pawn shops and empty storefronts have been a problem for a while, with the most infamous stretch being 101st Street between Railway and 12th Avenue.
The area is home to a proliferation of pawn shops. That prompted tough zoning bylaws forbidding new pawn shops, but those have no impact on “non-conforming use” buildings that existed before the zoning changes came in, allowing the existing pawn shops to remain in business.
Concern about crime in the area reached its height in 2010, when Michael John Duperron was arrested and later convicted for a stabbing at the automated banking machine at the Royal Bank on 101st Street.
That incident alarmed bank employees, notes Smythe, who says bank workers downtown also don’t feel safe and frequently have to deal with vagrants hanging around in the lobby of the banks.
Smythe adds that from what she’s heard from the employees, the banks had been lobbying to the move to around Territorial Place Mall, but claims those efforts have been frustrated by city zoning.
The situation downtown has been on the radar of both downtown businesses and civic officials.
A report from Nuguru Consultants in 2010 delivered to the City of North Battleford suggested a number of measures to turn around the downtown, including changes in the regulatory approach to address non-conforming use buildings, bylaws to address vacant buildings and rebranding the downtown as prime retail space.
Some initiatives have been implemented. On urging of council, the RCMP have stepped up foot patrols in the past year and intend to increase those foot and bicycle patrols downtown to increase visibility downtown. There has also been community mobilization to bring about a safer community. One of those meetings was held June 19 and more are to come.
Local businesses point to the increased foot and bike patrols as positive, along with beautification efforts through the Communities in Bloom competition and increased public events in the downtown core such as the annual Santa Claus parade.
There have also been efforts to reclaim some downtown buildings, including the former Dr. Wolf and Gormley building on 100th Street that was bought and renovated, and officials continue to look for ways to improve the general look of the downtown core.
City officials have acknowledged publicly there is a long road ahead to turn the downtown around.
“I admit, I wish we could move faster to redevelop and regenerate that neighborhood,” said Mayor Ian Hamilton during the State of the City address to the Chamber of Commerce May 8.
“That said, there is a committed group of downtown business owners … who are putting a plan in place to see new life in our downtown. While the City doesn’t own the downtown land and buildings, we know how important a vibrant core is to our community. We want local business to thrive there, and we want people to be proud of their downtown. We will push forward in the coming year, supporting the community group in policy and improved bylaws to create an environment for business.”
Hamilton was referring to the Downtown Business Association, which has struck a committee to help put a revitalization effort in place for downtown. Those efforts are still in the early stages.
Revitalization cannot come soon enough for Smythe, whose many ideas include dealing with derelict buildings and giving power to liquor store to refuse to serve alcohol to repeat offenders and those who loiter.
She also would like to see some sort of town hall meeting to allow those who work downtown to voice opinions on what needs to be done to make their working environments safer and more conducive to business.
Smythe also acknowledges it is not a quick fix, but feels more bike patrols and foot patrols are only a “patch” over deeper issues.
“There’s an underlying problem here,” said Smythe, who points in particular to the pawn shops and other establishments as “attracting trouble.”
“It either needs to be addressed, or gone.”