Members of council expressed impatience with the pace of improvement in downtown Maple Ridge on Monday, as city hall staff presented council with a Vibrant Downtown report.
Most of the hour-long discussion centered on the many drug addicted and mentally ill people who frequent the area.
“We’ve got to stop coping, and we’ve got to solve,” said Coun. Mike Morden.
He added that it’s time for an action plan, rather than more study – as city hall staff recommended in the report.
“We don’t need more study. Put together a proper plan, and act on it,” he said. “I want to see us take a much more proactive approach on it.”
The report called for a social impact assessment study, as one of its four recommendations.
Morden noted that 30 people were recently moved from a camp on Ministry of Transportation lands, “with no plans for where they will go.”
“It’s not good enough to have the RCMP chasing them around,” he said.
Councillors questioned Ridge Meadows RCMP Supt. Dave Fleugel about enforcement in the downtown.
Coun. Corisa Bell asked how many hours local police dedicate to “the issues downtown.
“Where is downtown on the list of priorities?,” she asked, adding people in the area report police saying their complaints are not a priority.
“The whole community is sensitive to the issues in the downtown,” Bell said. “Taxpaying citizens feel neglected.”
Coun. Bob Masse questioned how proactive the downtown foot patrols can be, noting that he has seen patrols walk past a group of people trespassing on private property.
He questions whether police and security officers can move people from the downtown area, and even whether they should.
Fleugel answered that the RCMP divides the city into zones, and the town centre zone has officers assigned to it, dealing with calls, around the clock. He said it is the zone that generates the most calls, which is expected because it also is the most populous zone. He did not have figures on hand.
Fleugel noted that the dedicated foot and bike patrols, in concert with Westridge Security, have been going for about 18 months in the area.
“The priorities you set are clearly our priorities,” he said, adding that the perception of safety is important.
However, he said police are dealing with “deeply complex social issues,” with homeless people downtown.
Fleugel added that police officers are talking to their communities about homelessness “from coast to coast.”
Coun. Al Hogarth also wanted to see more rapid improvements downtown.
“We need to step it up,” he said, and added that the provincial and federal governments need to “come to the table with proper resources.”
He doesn’t want to see the cost of dealing with homelessness put on the local tax bill, and suggested the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities start lobbying senior government for resources.
“If we’re not careful, we’re going to be the ones to take on the issue,” he said.
Masse said that until a solution is found, “coping is extremely important in the meantime.”
He said the federal and provincial governments appear to be almost deliberately avoiding the issue.
Morden noted that with the district paying Westridge Security for foot patrols to enhance security downtown, homelessness is already a line item in the Maple Ridge budget.
“We’re the default here, and that’s got to end,” he said.
The Vibrant Downtown Task Force was launched in 2012, with local business, social services agencies and community members, and it worked for almost a year.
Some of the accomplishments of that group included Adopt a Block and Community Builders cleaning the downtown core every two weeks, new lighting downtown – particularly in Memorial Peace Park – a Business Watch campaign to encourage businesses to report crime and identify “hot spots,” and reviewing bylaws that allow cycling on the sidewalk.
An Integrated Response Task Group was also formed, researching best practices in other communities. It will present a list of those in the near future, according to Monday’s report.
Homelessness is an issue city hall has been dealing with for more than a decade. In 2003, the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Homeless Coalition developed the first Needs Assessment and Homeless Action Plan for the community.
The Vibrant Downtown Task Force recommendations:
• That council consider establishing an ongoing, sustainable model to grow the engagement of the business community in vibrant downtown initiatives and in the development of municipal services that respond to needs in the downtown.
• That council consider the benefits of utilizing a “placemaking” approach in the downtown. Attractive, interesting, vibrant well-functioning public space can jump-start economic development and strengthen a community’s ability to sustain itself.
• That council consider a pilot project that engages the community in arts, culture and creative community building initiatives in the downtown.
• That council consider conducting a social impact assessment study to ensure that we have current and relevant information with which to assess current and future service levels.