Business owners in the Old City Quarter want to see if addressing social disorder during the night can make their neighbourhood more inviting in the daytime.
Nanaimo city council, at a special meeting last Monday, agreed to pay $136,500 to help the Old City Quarter Business Improvement Association with a six-month pilot project that includes nighttime security, cleanup, summer ambassadors and a helpline for reporting safety and cleanliness issues. The taxpayer share represents 70 per cent of the project’s costs, with the OCQ businesses covering the balance of the $195,000 total.
Members of the Old City Quarter BIA sent correspondence advising council that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the presence and impact of homelessness in the area and residents and tenants “no longer feel safe in nor do they enjoy the changing character of the neighbourhood.”
Darren Moss, a member of the BIA, told councillors that people are actively looking to break leases and move away from Nanaimo’s downtown.
“Our position is, if we don’t take really clear, consistent and a bit visionary steps toward changing this, the efforts of [the] last 30 years is going to be undone fairly quickly,” he said.
Moss, explaining the thinking behind security at night rather than during the day, said the area undergoes a “shocking” transformation at about 10 or 11 p.m.
“If you were to drive down Wesley Street during the nighttime hours … I would suggest most of us wouldn’t drive down the street. It’s a very intimidating environment,” he said.
Councillors were supportive of the OCQ plan but most lamented that it amounts to more reactive spending at a time when the city’s health and housing task force is looking at introducing proactive solutions, some of which will require tax dollars.
“This isn’t a solution, so this is another Band-Aid that we’re applying,” said Coun. Erin Hemmens. “But if we have open eyes as we’re doing that, I’m somewhat comfortable.”
Coun. Don Bonner suggested the city needs to “own” problems around mental health, addictions and homelessness because it’s happening in Nanaimo, but added that “this is money that we’ll be spending that we can’t get back and we will not have any long-term solutions out of it.”
Coun. Tyler Brown said the city is undoubtedly in the reactive stage, and so the question comes down to how best to spend resources.
“That’s the problem when we try to focus on normative conceptions of what we want our society to be. The reality is it’s not, and it’s not going to be anytime soon,” Brown said. “We talk about social disorder and the flipside of that is we want to get back to social order. Well, that’s so far off when we [try to] hold onto something that was.”
A city staff report notes that the municipality currently pays for security in the downtown core with a focus on the waterfront and city parkades. Staff presented council with an option to expand that service by two security guards for an additional $83,200 through the end of the year, but council instead voted unanimously to support the Old City Quarter’s pilot project.
“We can’t wait on provincial or federal governments,” said Coun. Zeni Maartman. “We have to do what little we can do and we cannot do very much in our city, but what little we can, we should be helping our citizens and our businesses.”