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Downtown businesses air safety concerns

There’s power in numbers. That was one of the key takeaways for organizers of a meeting for downtown business holders and others interested at the Grande Prairie Farmers’ Market Monday night.

Roughly 50 people gathered for what was billed as a meeting to discuss key issues surrounding the downtown community, as well as an opportunity to learn more about resources already available. It was prompted by a recent incident with an individual at the market, during which a shopkeeper was left feeling afraid for her life.

Over roughly two hours, people who run businesses in the downtown core and the surrounding area shared their own experiences, which ranged from feeling forced to keep their doors locked to prevent unwelcome people from coming through their doors to making multiple calls a day to the City of Grande Prairie’s Mobile Outreach Team or the RCMP. The owner of a karate studio says he believes some parents lose interest in his programs when they hear he is located downtown, and another says they are constantly catching criminal activity on camera with no consequences.

The farmers’ market itself has made 66 calls to bylaw or the RCMP over the past six years. In one instance, a worker reportedly left work at night to find people using drugs next to their vehicle.

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“That’s not safe and that’s not okay,” Manager Darice Rach told the crowd, noting that the main complaints they have heard are people finding needles, as well as coming across people who are hungry and can potentially become upset when kicked out of the facility for causing a disturbance.

Much of the conversation during the evening surrounded resources available to address concerns of homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health issues. Rach adds that the market has tried many ways to accommodate people who may be unhoused or unable to afford a meal, including setting up a free pantry, but those had to be shut down due to break-ins. Her main concerns in her business are having to kick people out of bathrooms for using them inappropriately as well as people harassing and stealing from vendors, something she’d ideally like to stop altogether.

“I know that that’s an unrealistic expectation but I think if I had to pick the things that would be the most important would be that the people that came here were safe and that they felt comfortable with their children in our building,” she told after the meeting, adding they have already seen a response in the week since posting about their issues on Facebok.

“We’ve had more police patrols, more individuals in the community stopping in to make sure everybody’s safe, checking in on Elaine. We’ve had all kinds of presence that we’ve never had before.”

Elaine Mills, owner of Elaine’s Unique Plants & Gifts, told the crowd that part of their hope for the meeting was to make sure people know about what’s already available to help with some of the problems, including Northreach Society for needle pickup, the Mobile Outreach Programm to help with concerns of loitering and trespassing, the Community Kitchen at the Friendship Centre, and the 24/7 drop-in centre at the Saint Lawrence Centre. She said she hopes people won’t be afraid to call when they need help.

That sentiment was echoed by the city’s Director of Protective & Social Services Chris Manuel, who was called up to speak at the meeting. Arguing, “we can’t fix what we don’t know”, he also stressed the importance of reporting issues through the proper channels so officials can better keep track of where problems are happening to better direct resources to them.

The need to communicate issues was also brought up by Grande Prairie Downtown Association Executive Director and Grande Prairie City Councillor Wendy Bosch, who works in a building at 101 Avenue and 102 Street where she has put up her own security cameras in response to incidents. She is encouraging members, and anyone else affected, to relay their concerns to her so she can advocate on their behalf.

“They’re important to me,” she says. “My role is to kind of be that umbrella to make sure that everybody’s feeling as positive and safe moving forward in their businesses. That’s what I’m there for and I will help them to the best of my ability.”

Speaking at length about system challenges, Manuel pointed to the establishment of the Street Outreach Centre to provide basic necessities, the Coordinated Care Campus at the former Stonebridge Hotel to address chronic homelessness with wraparound supports, the Mobile Outreach Program, Crime Mitigation Grants, and drug treatment court as some of the project underway aimed at addressing them. He also says the timing of the meeting was perfect to share that a new Public Security Unit will be hitting the streets next week, with teams of two security officers out at a time on a 24/7 basis.

“They are intended to be a hghly visible, proactive presence to, one, interact with the general public, business owners, shops, and try to find problems in the early stages before they become a larger issue… Because they don’t have the same workload demands, I guess, as the existing units have, it may be a more prompt response.”

It’s expected that the program will act like an arm of the Mobile Outreach Program if a more enforcement-related approach is needed, so if an incident is escalated to the police, mounties know all alternatives have been tried. In order to get the unit started as quickly as possible, trained security officers will be used, eventually using a hybrid of peace officers.

Out of all that is being tried, many in attendance Monday shared positive experiences with the Mobile Outreach Program, which was initially approved by Grande Prairie City Council as a pilot project in 2020. It partners an enforcement officer with an outreach officer to offer more immediate help to the street-engaged community.

Business owners say they often show up within minutes of being called and offer humanity while dealing with instances of public intoxication or other disturbances. One potential improvement suggested was to have them be available after 11 p.m., a suggestion Manuel says is something worth looking at.

“That’s one of those things we’ve been assessing to determine is 11 p.m. stopping the correct time to stop? Is there demand past that? Getting more of this feedback helps us inform those opinions as to whether we should shift those hours to provide better coverage.”

Before the gathering wrapped up, a plan was put in place to meet again in a month to further discuss plans. In addition to Bosch, City Councillors Grant Berg and Dylan Bressey were also in attendance and spoke, and it’s hoped more elected officials from all levels of government will attend.

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