Edmonton business groups call on city to fix downtown mess

Business owners and community leaders say social unrest and crime continue to plague downtown Edmonton, even as more people return to the office to work in person.

The council’s Community and Public Services Committee began reviewing the city’s proposed new safety and wellbeing strategy on Monday and more than 20 speakers signed up to share their concerns.

Stacy Zaidi, co-owner of 10 Remedy Cafe locations in Edmonton, said she is concerned for her staff and customers, who have faced abusive incidents over the past year.

“My staff were spat on. They were punched in the face. There was gender and ethnic discrimination,” Zaidi told advisers.

Zaidi said staff sometimes had to navigate trash, human waste and needles to enter the building.

“I really feel like a lot of companies — we’re on our own,” she said. “We are losing our empathy, we are losing patience and we need help – now.

Pamela Brown, who has worked in safety and security at Edmonton’s downtown mall for decades, said she supports the Community Safety and Wellbeing Strategy as a tool to combat the continuing social unrest, which is more apparent than ever.

“Before COVID, the challenges were somewhat masked by the working population,” Brown said. “With the challenges of crime and disorder so evident, this working population is afraid to return.”

Brown suggested that residents, businesses and workers need to feel safer, and that customers who use the mall as a hub need more places to go, such as day shelters.

“In 40 years, I’ve never seen downtown Edmonton in such dire straits,” Brown said. “Please act now.”

Ten business cases

The city’s strategy outlines ten initiatives that require immediate funding, including $1.5 million in micro-grants for businesses and community groups.

City manager Andre Corbould said an $8.4 million pool available from the Edmonton police budget can be used for the initiatives, including $1.5 million for a call dispatch center integrated and $1 million for an Indigenous-run shelter.

Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, said microgrants are needed, but they don’t go far.

The DBA is developing a new safety ambassador program, she said, which she says would require $150,000 to $200,000 in the first year.

Many businesses are directly impacted by serious security issues, she told advisers.

“They deserve to feel safe and free to peacefully exist and earn a living in our downtown and central neighborhoods.”

More police

There must also be more visible police patrols, she stressed.

“It’s absolutely critical that law enforcement be part of the solution,” McBryan said. “We cannot ensure the safety of our social workers if we send them alone.”

In 2020, the board agreed to create an independent task force to make recommendations on improving security.

Their report, “Safer for All”, was released in March 2021 and is included in the collection of reports that make up the full strategy.

Task force member Rob Houle spoke at Monday’s meeting and told advisers he saw little progress.

“We’re here a year from now, and we have very little productivity or completion of the recommendations that me and my colleagues have made.”

These included creating more diverse, inclusive anti-racist organizations through training and recruitment; investing in public safety equipment such as public toilets and shelters; and the creation of a new regulatory college for police and peace officers.

Councilors will continue to discuss strategy and funding needs at a meeting on Tuesday.

David H. Henry