'Really fed up': In B.C. Interior, some businesses are vowing to leave downtowns

Downtown business owners in B.C.'s Interior say problems stemming from the province's housing and addictions crises are making it increasingly difficult to operate, and some are pulling out of their city centres altogether. 

In Kelowna, a growing list of companies have abandoned the downtown Leon Ave. neighbourhood, citing an increased homeless population. Quesnel and Terrace have held public meetings addressing similar concerns.

And in Prince George, the 100-year-old Northern Hardware store announced plans to shut down this week, blaming a rise in online shopping and big box stores, but also a deterioration of the downtown community it anchored for generations.

"I understand the angst," Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall said. "I'm downtown all the time, and I have seen the increase of what's happening."

Nightclub owner Jason Luke said "what's happening" includes the prevalence of discarded needles and human feces. As well, some who work in the area say they fear for their safety.

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Luke helped form a new organization consisting of frustrated business owners after Kate Roxburgh, who owns Topaz Bead Gallery on 4th Ave., was assaulted by an alleged shoplifter. She said she no longer feels safe and plans to sell her business.

"The businesses that I've talked to are really fed up," Luke said. "I want action and I want it literally right now." 

Hall said he will hold a special meeting focused on downtown. But many of the problems are outside the city's control.

"We have an opioid crisis. We have a need for more housing," he said. "It's a problem all over the province."

Mark Burley with the Downtown Kelowna Association said the province should provide resources for more housing and addiction recovery options in the interior.

"The province needs to get off their sorry butt and start funding some programs that are going to help these people get off the street," Burley said.

Backlash concerns

Not all the news in downtown Prince George is bad. Construction is underway on several major projects including a new hotel, a pool, student housing and a 151-unit condominium.

Colleen Van Mook of the downtown Prince George business association said the area is "still home to over 500 great businesses" that continue to grow, and a local craft brewery celebrated its third anniversary with a series of sold-out downtown street parties over the summer.

But with the recent negative news, some people in the area worry about a backlash against people dealing with homelessness and addiction — and the agencies that help them.

Stuart Parker, a writer and former academic, said he walks downtown nearly every day, and is bothered by some of the language he'd heard describing people living on the street.

"Statements like 'These people have no rights' and they must be 'rounded up,'" he said. 

Andrew Kurjata/CBC

Trevor Charles, who was recently homeless for four years, said he wondered about calls to "clean up" the neighbourhood. "What do they mean 'clean up'?" he asked.

"The people? The people have been out there on the street for 20, 30 years now."

Charles said more spaces should be opened for people without homes so they wouldn't be forced onto sidewalks and alleys.

Andrew Kurjata/CBC

Hall, the mayor, said housing and health services are needed, adding he'll continue to work with the province to provide them, while also supporting local businesses.

"For me the ideal downtown is that we can provide services in locations to these folks that require it... And we have a vibrant downtown that people are not concerned or afraid to come to." 

Hear full interviews with Lyn Hall, Jason LukeStuart Parker and Trevor Charles on CBC Listen. Connect with CBC Northern British Columbia on FacebookTwitter and Instagram