Mayor Lyn Hall says council is well aware of the social issues facing downtown and the city has been working hard to come up with solutions.
Downtown businesses have held two separate meetings in recent weeks, one organized by the Prince George Chamber of Commerce, to hopefully organize and put pressure on the city to deal with the increased number of homeless people downtown, as well issues of drug use and crime. A number of business people were in the crowd at city council Monday and Hall said the issue is front-and-centre for all of council.
“We know we have an issue,” said Hall. “This particular issue has not left anybody’s purview in almost three years. Day-in and day-out we deal with this issue. It’s not as if we turn a blind eye to it. When we take a look at the downtown issue, there are no golden remedies that are going to create an absolute fix for everything that goes on.”
And, the problem is not unique to Prince George. Hall said he has talked with other mayors around the province … all looking for remedies.
“It’s a tough job,” he said. “Every municipality is suffering with the same issue. That’s not an excuse, it’s just the plain, hard, cold facts of this. Is acceptable because everybody else in the province are having to deal with it? Not at all. And we understand that we need to do something … We’re not turning a blind eye to it, we’re not burying ourselves.”
He said during the election one of the most common questions was ‘what are you going to do about downtown?’
Hall said part of that discussion is economic.
“I think we’ve really hit our stride,” he said. “We’ve seen a tremendous amount of development not only downtown but throughout the community. I think we’ve seen a vibrant downtown.”
However, in recent weeks the discussion about downtown is all about the social issues, he said, adding it’s important for the public to know what the city can actually control when it comes to homelessness, drug use, mental health, issues and crime.
“What we can control is a fraction, a segment, of what is taking place downtown,” he said. “We can control RCMP, we have bylaw services, those kinds of things. We can’t, and aren’t, in the housing business, although we can be a partner … Health and harm reduction, that’s not our bailiwick, but we can be a partner.”
He pointed to the proposed development on First Avenue as example of partnering with other agencies to try and address the problems.
He pointed out some of the work the city does downtown such bylaw services’ two-person compliance team that does bylaw enforcement, clean up; the municipality pays for some private security at city facilities downtown; it has partnered with Baldy Hughes to combat graffiti downtown; the downtown clean team; council’s recent approval of washrooms; the downtown safety unit consisting of between four and six officers who ran programs such as the bait bike; and public works that deals with homeless camps.
“The clean-up of homeless camps in our community has really taken away from what we would traditionally know as our parks department,” Hall said. “These folks are now dealing with hazardous materials, from needles to excrement. They’re having to tear down homeless camps. That concerns me. That concerns me that we’re having to deal with it, not just in our downtown, but throughout the community.”
It’s not what workers in the parks department were hired to do, he said, but it’s become the job.
Hall said that in 2018 city spent about $1.2 million on the items mentioned focusing on the downtown. He said it will likely be closer to $1.5 million in 2019.
A recent two-day strategic planning session for council focused on downtown.
Coun. Kyle Sampson put forward a motion to have a public meeting on what to do with the issues downtown. The motion passed unanimously.
“It is a crisis, it is an issue, and it’s an important conversation to have, and it didn’t start at (strategic) planning last week, this has been going on my entire time in council, a full year, and it’s been going on before that, ” said Sampson said.
Details of the public meeting should be sorted out within the next couple of weeks.