Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce holds “heated” town hall over downtown frustrations

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DAWSON CREEK, B.C. — The Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce held a heated town hall meeting on Wednesday night, where members shared concerns and frustration over undesirable activity in the city’s downtown.

The 200-person meeting was nearly a full house, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kathleen Connolly said and had a lot of representation from businesses in Dawson Creek.

“The room was definitely full of very passionate and frustrated people that really just wanted the opportunity to be heard and to really have an opportunity to get some answers,” she said. 

“There were moments that were heated because it is a complicated conversation and it is a sensitive conversation,” Connolly continued.

The activity to which the business owners and other chamber of commerce members in Dawson Creek seek answers includes both criminal and non-criminal activities: loitering, property crime, and substance use were highlighted among them. 

Frustrations voiced included broken windows and petty theft, Connolly said. Though she notes that mental health and addiction have major roles to play in this issue, businesses in the downtown core are feeling the impact. 

Some businesses have brought in extra safety and security measures for staff and customers, and others have changed their opening hours.

“It is definitely without a doubt affecting businesses,” Connolly said.

Transparency also an issue

Though some chamber members were concerned with the behaviour in the downtown core itself, others questioned the efforts of some groups to mitigate harm from substance use which operate or intend to operate in the downtown area. 

“The largest thing that came out of the meeting was the concern that people had about the real, total lack of communications that occurred at the inception of the OPS site in Dawson Creek,” Dawson Creek Chief Administrative Officer Blair Lekstrom said.

Northern Health’s overdose prevention site in the city, as well as the peer-run SNOW House, first fielded these questions at a charged city council meeting in July. 

The sites were perceived to be a factor, if not a major factor, in the upward tick in undesirable activity witnessed in the area. 

The lack of communication between the business community, city, and those who provide OPS services “created a very large portion of the problem we’re facing right now,” Lekstrom continued.

Though, he says, the belief of the city and its leadership is that helping people struggling with addiction is important, the breakdown happens when consultation is lacking. 

The conversation could look very different today, Lekstrom says, had that formal discussion happened earlier. 

Not New

Though the Northern Health OPS and SNOW House are newer phenomena, Connolly notes that crime in the downtown core is not a new problem.

“I wouldn’t say that this is new. I would say that we are seeing consequences of that kind of traffic in the downtown core, more than we have in the past,” Connolly said.

She says that the first meeting of this kind occurred four years ago, but that members noticing an increase in undesirable activity brought it to the attention of the chamber once again. 

Different solutions proposed

Though Lekstrom explained that the meeting was more focused on learning about the problems business owners complained about than presenting solutions, some forward motion stemmed from the town hall. 

Some steps to address the concerns of business owners were more aligned with—and some were initiated by—groups providing OPS services than others. 

Increased transparency was one of these.

“We had assurances from [SNOW House] that they will go out and consult all their neighbours and have those conversations with neighbouring businesses,” Connolly said, which she calls a “huge win.”

“What we’re looking for is the ability to sit down and collaborate, consult, and come up with programs because we want those programs here, but we want them safe for everybody.”

SNOW House is also offering to send volunteers to patrol any “hotspots” noted by businesses and dispose of any paraphernalia they find, according to the chamber’s Facebook page. The post also suggested members learn to use overdose prevention medication Naloxone. 

Another proposed answer to business concerns is a bylaw to prohibit loitering.

Currently, Dawson Creek does not have a bylaw that prevents using a public space for no perceived purpose. It is only a criminal act if an individual is causing a public disturbance.

“There would be a very specific definition of [loitering],” Connolly says. “[Then] you can call the bylaw officer. If the bylaw officer can’t remove them, then the RCMP can be called.” 

Lekstrom confirmed that some city council members were “pursuing that avenue” but that the idea was still very preliminary.

“I do anticipate that coming,” he said.

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