KENORA — Public safety in downtown is on the top of mind for the city's mayor after two incidents this past week.
A pair of local businesses have detailed recent incidents of people entering their establishments and refusing to leave, in one case allegedly assaulting the owner and vandalizing a store. In that case, the owner of Island Girl posted a live video on Facebook while the encounter was taking place.
Kenora mayor Andrew Poirier said these incidents prompted council to move up a meeting on public safety from next week to Thursday at 11 a.m.
“The purpose of the meeting and that is to discuss strategies for improving the safety in the in the downtown core,” he said in a Wednesday interview.
“We need to stop talking about what the problems are, and start talking about solutions and coming up with a game plan. [We] will be some looking at strategies that the city can embark on within its purview and jurisdiction to make some effective changes.”
Poirier said there still needs to be a lot of work with other organizations and other levels of government to fix some of these problems.
“There [are] certain things we're able to do. We can have discussions with police, we can have discussions and advocate with other levels of government, but we have a drug problem in our community," he said. "I'm not going to mince words about that, we have a drug problem in our community and we need to [advocate] through the judiciary and the police, whatever we can do to help them solve some of these problems.”
Poirier said he doesn’t think all the laws on the books are being used to address the issue and there are many other factors involved, like mental health and addiction.
“I'm all for advocating to have treatment centres and treatment programs, for the people that need to get the help,” he said. “If there's something that the city can do in order to advocate or facilitate that, I think we're more than happy to participate.”
Michelle Livingston, the owner of Island Girl, said she’s mentally drained after the incident that took place in her store on Dec. 23.
“I'm having a hard time sleeping,” she said. “I feel like I can't leave my staff alone at the store. I'm worried for their safety as well as my own.”
Livingston said she’s installing more video surveillance cameras in her store and also setting up a doorbell outside her store, which will allow her to keep the door locked.
“So customers will have to ring the door to enter,” she said adding she’ll be reviewing situations with her employees so they know what to do if a similar situation were to happen again.
Even with the incident, Livingston opened the store the next day.
“In a small town, you need to be [open] during these cold winter months, I mean especially nowadays you're battling Amazon. So if I'm not open those days that could make or break me,” she said.
Poirier said he was shocked and sickened when he saw the video on social media.
“I've reached out to the owners of that business, I went to see them and talk to them and see if there was anything we could do," he said. “I said we're going to be working on some solutions and they were very gracious about it.”
He said they offered to help if there's something that they could do or participate in coming up with solutions.
“[There are] many businesses that are willing to step up and look at helping to fix some of these problems,” he said. “There needs to be some changes in different parts of the government and with us at the city to try and fix this problem.”
Livingston said things have to get done now or else the area is going to be a ghost town.
“I'm [also] a landlord and these other businesses rent from me,” Livingston said adding tenants are requesting gates to be put up in front of their stores or they're being forced to close their doors because staff have quit because they're not feeling safe.”
“We need a police station right downtown,” she said. “The wait time [for a response] shouldn't be 15 minutes.”
She said the response from the community after the incident has been mostly supportive with encouraging messages and people visiting the store to check in on her well-being, however she noted she has gotten phone calls that she described as threatening.
Another business, Spirit Oak Tea Company, posted on social media about a Tuesday incident where a group of four people harassed staff. The shop will be closed until Jan. 3.
"Unfortunately the environment downtown has become so bad that my employees don't feel safe coming to work," the post reads. "Even reaching the point of feeling like their only choice was to leave their position with us rather than risk their own safety being downtown."
Eric Shih, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Thunder Bay Source