By Tim Kalinowski on October 7, 2021.
City council candidates wrestled for over two hours with some of the fundamental questions facing Lethbridge’s downtown core at the Downtown Business Revitalization Zone virtual candidates’ debate on Tuesday evening.Â
What emerged was a composite of all the potential solutions to the downtown question, and a cross-section of all the different camps within our city’s municipal power structure, each with a tantalizing fragment of the problem as a whole.
For instance, there were those who advocated for some kind of drop-in centre downtown to give the homeless a place to go during the day to have “meaningful activity” to keep them out of trouble.
“One of the things I see over and over again on a daily basis is people have nothing to do, and they have no place to go,” stated candidate Bill Ginther, citing his experience as executive director of the Lethbridge Soup Kitchen to validate his point. “So one of the things we really need to work hard at is finding meaningful activity for those that have nothing to do. We need to make sure they have a place to go.”
This opinion was echoed by candidate Dale Leier, who said it was something that should be done immediately.
“When you have a house on fire, you don’t worry about how it started,” he said. “You worry about how to deal with the problem as it is until you get to longer term solutions later.”
Candidate Jenn Prosser said more was at stake in making such a decision than people typically realize.
“For folks who are struggling to make ends meet, for folks that are struggling with food insecurity, housing insecurity, this is about economic injustice,” she stated. “Which is why we need as a city council to prioritize funding and support affordable housing projects as well as working together in collaboration with the amazing social agencies that we have throughout the city that provide frontline services to open a daytime space, somewhere for folks to go.”
Another element to the downtown question, said others, was providing safety and security to deal with intrusive loitering, drug dealers and crime.
“(The Watch) is a great program, but one without teeth,” stated candidate Davey Wiggers. “Perhaps a Watch patrol with a police officer empowered to actually take action … Enough with the platitudes, we need action.”
Candidate Rajko Dodic agreed that a stronger enforcement presence would encourage better behaviour downtown.
“The reality is downtown needs a really large presence of some sort of security personnel,” he stated. “It doesn’t have to beÂ necessarily police. It could be other forms: peace officers, The Watch program, things like that. Because once you actually have some sort of presence on the street, people know if they do have negative behaviour, or they act out, there are going to be consequences for it.”
But beyond enforcement, some candidates said it was important to have meaningful dialogue with all downtown stakeholders to create citizen-led solutions to the problems we face in the downtown.
“We need to set the stage for a dialogue to occur that invites all stakeholders to the table, including thoseÂ who are enmeshed in the issue of downtown itself,” stated candidate Michael Petrakis. “For example, poverty and addiction. To bring together everyone that is involved so as to honour the fact their experiential wisdom matters, and a continuity of dialogue is what will ensure that we get to the bottom of the issue. One of my favourite Indigenous quotes is: ‘When we gather, we speak until the truth is self-evident.”
But it isn’t just about engaging in dialogue about social problems in the downtown, said candidate Ryan Wolfe, it is about finding solutions to the challenges facing business owners by actually listening to business owners when they tell you what they need.
“I would get the hell out of their way,” he stated. “They perceive city hall as an obstacle for them to do business.”
Candidate Kelti Baird said the problems of the downtown are mobile, not fixed, with many spillover effects into other nearby areas and neighbourhoods. The solutions cannot just be downtown solutions, she said, but solutions which look at the problem in its holistic effects over the entire span of the city.
“I have often been frustrated with how much focus the city hall and the programs from city hall seem to have on the downtown often to the detriment of other business districts in the community,” she stated. “That being said, we need to tackle the issues in the city as a whole. Though if a program is working in (one) area, we need to extend it to the feeder areas of the city. The downtown does not exist without the neighbourhoods around it.”
All city council candidates were present for the virtual forum on Tuesday except Bernie Mbonihankuye, Wally Schenk, Suketu Shah, Rufa Doria and Bradley Whalen.Â
Those wishing to view the entire forum can do so on the Downtown BRZ YouTube page.
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