“Yes, the downtown is a mess.”
Realtor Mark Hindley stated what is patently clear to those who continue to support downtown merchants.
The comment was one of many frustrated business owners aired this past Thursday (Nov. 25) in an information session via Zoom on managing the city’s homeless.
Participants included city representatives, St. Thomas Police, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Inn Out of the Cold, Southwestern Public Health, St. Thomas Elgin Social Services and Earl Taylor from the Downtown Development Board.
As Taylor advised, a number of social issues continue to occur in our downtown that are affecting our businesses and properties.
Homelessness, crime, mental health issues, drug addiction, sharps disposal and garbage continue to affect our downtown.
Hindley continued, “I agree that there’s addiction and mental health issues and some of it is just plain disrespect.”
He was referring to ongoing vandalism, including damage to businesses, vehicles parked downtown and city property by homeless individuals in the core area.
“Why can’t we make them responsible for their own mess that they make?
“There’s planters knocked over, there’s garbage cans knocked over and in other words, we’re just reacting and there is no onus on them to do anything.
“It’s all up to us to look after them. I think we need to teach them some responsibility, somehow.”
Much of the early discussion revolved around security guards who had been visibly present in the downtown core to monitor the situation.
“If additional security downtown is something we feel we need,” suggested Mayor Joe Preston, “and there are a number of cities where they’ve gone to the Downtown Development Board or the business improvement group to hire security.
“But that’s a conversation collectively with the DDB we probably should have.”
Is that what this has come to? Security guards on every block and at the DDB’s expense, no less.
Does that look and feel like a welcoming downtown shopping area?
One of the suggestions is to convert vacant storefronts into residential units. Ground floor residences are permitted along Talbot Street in the west end in the area of William Street.
“I agee a hundred per cent agree with the need for all the housing we can possibly find,” stressed Preston.
“We have storefronts that have been empty for years, perhaps we should look at that. We have some downtown businesses that have been vacant for a decade, and could easily have been converted into a place for someone to live.
“But there are a number of business people who don’t think that’s a great idea, having residences beside their businesses rather than a row of businesses.”
A sore point for many is the day drop-in centre at 423 Talbot Street, the old Mickleborough Building, where many homeless individuals congregate.
“We’ve learned some lessons at 423 Talbot,” advised Preston.
“I’ve got some of the same issues, from chilli thrown all over the front windows to poop and pee all over the entrances to needles jammed in our back doors.”
The opening of the full-time emergency shelter at 10 Princess Avenue – now scheduled for mid-December instead of in September as initially noted – is being relied upon heavily by the city and social service agencies to help rectify some of the ongoing issues.
It will be the new home for Inn Out of the Cold and have a capacity of approximately 40 individuals.
“Certainly from a security point of view, it’s all in one place instead of more than one,” pointed out Preston.
“It’s at least an improved situation over shelter overnight here, get up and go down here and spend your day there.
“I want to give my support to my peers and neighbours down the street,” added Renee Carpenter, owner of Jennings Furniture and Design.
“And share their feelings and hopefully we can all come together with support. I’ve got some of the same issues, from chilli thrown all over the front windows to poop and pee all over the entrances to needles jammed in our back doors.
“This past week I had three of our street guests camped out in our front cubicle blocking clients who couldn’t get in.
“And, with security not there to be able to reach out to, I went out to try and deal with it.
“Two of the ladies were pleasant and move on. I got some attitude from the gentlemen but having a teenager, I dealt with it and moved him on eventually as well.
“But, this is a day in and day out process and our customers are not wanting to come in through the front door.
“Everyone who comes in complains about what happened to St. Thomas? ‘This does not look like the city we’ve been to before.’
“The things I would like to address are the filth, the garbage, the clean-up, the needles. I personally don’t feel I should be picking up needles. Or take a course on how to pick up needles and how to put them in a container.”
“We pull a lot of people from surrounding areas so we hear those surprise comments having not been here for some time.
“It is a huge issue,” concluded a frustrated Carpenter.
She again referenced the security guards and the need to have them in the core.
If this is the needed route, is it the responsibility of the merchants to pay for this collectively through the DDB?
The same merchants trying to weather a pandemic and get back on their feet, some of whom won’t survive, leaving additional empty storefronts.
It’s a vicious death spiral for the downtown.
Patti Mugford of Mugford’s Shoes and Clothing, located a short distance from the Mickleborough Building, noted she has been dealing with homelessness and addiction situations for almost two years.
“The things I would like to address are the filth, the garbage, the clean-up, the needles. I personally don’t feel I should be picking up needles.
“Or take a course on how to pick up needles and how to put them in a container.”
“We are about at our wit’s end. It’s pretty tough when customers won’t come in or we have to take customers to their car.”
That last comment is about a proposed program from the health unit to distribute sharps containers and tongs to downtown merchants and leave the clean-up to them.
“Our back area is loaded (with needles). I think about four weeks ago we dealt with Talbot Street that looked like there had been a street party.”
She took a video of the mess and forwarded copies to city manager Wendell Graves and Mayor Preston.
“No reply,” said Mugford.
“When you drive into St. Thomas, there’s no beauty. The garbage cans are full 24/7. It should be a basic duty every day that city workers could put that on their schedule.
“What we cleaned up that Saturday morning was horrific.
“I love St. Thomas, we’ve been in business for 57 years and I’d like to continue. Hopefully what you’re doing will work.
“We are about at our wit’s end. It’s pretty tough when customers won’t come in or we have to take customers to their car.”
And, another reference to security guards.
“We were really disappointed that we were not informed that the security was let go. I addressed that with Wendell (city manager Wendell Graves) and he knew nothing about it.”
New security guards were to be in place in mid-November.
Earl Taylor from the DDB closed out the forum with the observation, “I hear a lot of discussion around what I keep being told are the 100 people that are causing these concerns in our downtown.
“I think what has happened is we’ve forgotten about our downtown merchants. And the Downtown Development Board represents you, the downtown merchants.
“Call your councillors, for heaven’s sake. These are the people we elected to solve our city problems and correct them. And for the Downtown Development Board to pay to solve the problems being created is still not on top of my list, by any means.”
“And I haven’t heard one iota of interest in our downtown merchants. We’re losing merchants. Merchants are putting up steel gates in front of their doors.
“To hear Councillor Jim Herbert say he wasn’t aware of what’s happening at Patti Mugford’s property is discouraging.
“I think there are a lot of people here that have forgotten about us on the street, we are the taxpayers who are in the downtown.”
Normally in control of his emotions, Taylor eventually vented, “About garbage pick-up, don’t bloody call me at the Downtown Development Board if the garbage can in front of your business is over-stuffed with garbage and it’s been like that for two weeks.
“We can’t fix that. I’m not coming down or sending one of my volunteers to pick up a garbage can.
“Those are city services, these are police services and CMHA services.
“Call your councillors, for heaven’s sake. These are the people we elected to solve our city problems and correct them.
“And for the Downtown Development Board to pay to solve the problems being created is still not on top of my list, by any means.
“And the sharps issue is another concern. We hand out hundreds of thousands of sharps every year and now it’s our job to consider that as normal garbage and pick them up.”
Onboard for the entire meeting was Leticia Mizon from The Nameless – a community-based, peer-led harm- reduction group offering proactive boots on the ground – and next week we’ll highlight some of the interactions she had with Mayor Preston.
MOVEMENT ON NEW CHILDCARE CENTRE
A special meeting of city council has been called for 5 p.m. on Tuesday (Nov. 30), once again via Zoom.
Members will be asked to authorize awarding the tender to Graceview Enterprises of Belmont for the construction of a new childcare centre in the city.
As an aside, Graceview was the contractor on the 16 micro-apartments developed above the Talbot Street transit centre, now known as the Railway City Lofts.
This is the long-delayed 84-space childcare facility to be constructed on St. Catharine Street on the site of what is now a municipal parking lot.
Most important, right off the top, do not believe city manager Wendell Graves when he notes in his report to council, “This project has been prolonged largely in part because of the pandemic.”
That’s a porky of major-league proportions.
And, Graves’ recommendation back in July of this year to hold off on the tendering process until the fall when construction costs may ease, did not pan out.
At that time the projected cost of the project was pegged at $4.3 million, about $300,000 higher than hoped for.
Well, the all-in cost is now over $4.7 million, much of which is recoverable through provincial funding and existing available programming dollars.
But it will still leave the city with over $670,000 in short-term financing.
Remember, the city was already in receipt of $2.6 million in provincial funding for the childcare spaces with the understanding the facility must be operational by the end of 2020.
All of this was in place long before the pandemic.
The city was faced with a “soft” business case back in 2019 when the decision was made to not proceed with Phase 2 of the community and social services hub at 230 Talbot Street, which was to be the original home of the childcare facility.
Yes, the pandemic dramatically increased construction costs, however, the childcare centre was in troubled waters long before the outbreak of the coronavirus.
And let’s return to that council meeting in July of this year when there was considerable opposition to delaying the tendering process and almost unanimous support for proceeding with the undertaking.
“Childcare spaces in our community are desperately needed,” reminded Coun. Lori Baldwin-Sands, “and I believe once we start coming out of COVID a little more rapidly, the people who are going to be requiring the service of daycare is going to be growing exponentially.”
Coun. Steve Wookey put it bluntly, “If it requires $300,000 of our money to get 88 childcare spots (actually 84 places), I’m in favour of that.
“And whether that’s through budget monitoring or you name it, councillors will go out and do a circus performance if we need to.”
Wookey continued, “If we tender in the fall, there is no guarantee it’s going to be done by the end of 2022 (the new deadline established by the province). Tendering it as early as we possibly can is a really important thing.”
Coun. Gary Clarke echoed those comments.
“I would love to see the timelines ASAP. And if that means it’s doable before the fall . . . I think we can cover the difference.
“I’m just worried about leaving it (the tendering) until the fall.”
The lone voice of reluctance at that meeting was Mayor Joe Preston who fell back on his healthcare is a provincial matter mantra.
“I understand the province is bending over backwards to try and make these things work, but these are the responsibilities of the province, not the responsibility of the municipality.
“Let’s ask the province to do the job they are supposed to do, which is the full funding of it and over a period of time.
“I don’t disagree with my colleagues that this is really needed and we could probably jump in and help, but I would hate to jump in and help and make it a permanent we will always help.”
With close to three years of delays – and not the result of the pandemic – it looks like the city will be jumping in, to the tune of about $670,000.
There is no doubt whatsoever the childcare centre is desperately needed and it should have been dealt with back in 2019 when the $2.6 million in provincial funding would have covered the majority of the costs.
ONE TO WATCH
As you can see from some of the correspondance we received after last week’s item on electronic voting, there are questions, many doubts and concerns plus conspiracy warnings from those taking time out from their anti-vaxxer messaging.
To perhaps alleviate some of the doubt and negativity, we went right to the top. This past week we had a lengthy conversation with Brian Lack, who founded Simply Voting Inc. in 2003 and now leads the company. It’s the firm that will undertake the electronic vote in the 2022 municipal vote in St. Thomas.
Here is some background info on Lack as found on the company’s webpage.
“Brian authored the initial version of the voting system. He now takes an active role in managing staff and supervising operations, marketing, and product development.
“Brian is an expert in software security and web application architecture.
“Brian holds a Bachelor’s degree in Math, Chemistry and Physics and a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, both from McGill University.”
Next week in this corner, we’ll delve into what Lack had to say concerning working with St. Thomas next year for the 2022 municipal vote.
It’s a compelling discussion and a great way to educate yourself on where voting is headed.
THE ECHO CHAMBER
As noted above, the feedback generated by a paperless vote for the St. Thomas electorate in the 2022 municipal election generated a broad cross-section of opinions.
Susan Gerry stresses it is time we move on.
“We all know that in the distant past votes were obtained through bribes and booze. Sir John Eh Mac Donald is a prime example!
“With proper safeguards in place, there should be no concerns.
“By the way, my 85-year-old mother had a smartphone and tablet before I did!!!!!
“She purchased those after her computer.”
Steve Ogden adds electronic voting makes sense, with a caveat.
“. . . provided there are adequate means in place to ensure it’s done accurately and, if not, the election is rendered void.
“The public should be made fully aware of the means and regulations surrounding the voting and for counting them afterward.”
Leith Coghlin is adamant a move to electronic voting is not necessary.
“If people can’t bother to put in the effort to vote and participate in democracy then so be it.
“The exercise isn’t about convenience. Electronic balloting can be subject to so much manipulation and fraud.
“This is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in the first place.”
Finding something to vent about apart from the St. Thomas Police Service, Dee Wells posted the following.
“Another inept, against-the-citizens-they-serve decision.
“Electronic votes can be manipulated and any expectation of privacy is gone.
“Not surprised this city council would vote for this. No matter who is voted for, the corrupt will remain.”
Writing from the same playbook, Kevin Smith opines in the following fashion.
“Cheat City/St.Thomas, a place where politicians running for re-election automatically get 25% more votes, thanks to electronic voting lol.
“Using paper ballots is the only safe way to secure and produce accurate election results.
“I guess integrity matters very little to our city council.”
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