Tom Kacich | Will the new approach fix downtown Champaign? | Opinion

For much of the past two decades, downtown Champaign has been considered a vibrant hit with a performing arts center, live music, a slew of bars and restaurants, and large multi-generational crowds that filled sidewalks and helped generate a lot of tax revenue for the city.

But the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it has brought, a startling drop in the number of police officers available to patrol downtown, and incidents of lawlessness have tarnished the luster of downtown Champaign.

That’s why city council members voted, somewhat reluctantly but unanimously, to spend up to $203,986 on private security guards to patrol the central business district (University Avenue at Washington Street and State Street to First Street) Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings starting in late May. until the end of the year.

Last year, businesses and residents began raising concerns about security issues downtown. The problem persists this year, downtown bar owners said.

“We’ve had a few hot weekends already, and it’s been tough for us,” said Jaclyn Sampson, co-owner of the Esquire Lounge on Walnut Street, which appears to be the new epicenter of security concerns.

Eric Meyer, co-owner of Bentley’s Pub on Neil Street, said “pop-up parties” have moved from remote areas and car parks to city center streets.

“We’re dealing with these fleeting parties, vehicles literally stopping in the middle of the street, drinking, people jumping on cars and dancing and literally being scary or getting in the middle of people trying to stop them, and threatening them Meyer said after last Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Council members widely agreed that the short-staffed police department needed help. A council memo said the police department, with an authorized strength of 124 officers, had 19 vacancies and 27 “unusable” positions, including seven limited duty, seven at the police academy, seven in training on the ground, two on military leave and four injured.

Council Member Tom Bruno noted that he attended the Lewis Black performance at the Virginia Theater last Sunday and saw a former Champaign police officer working security.

“If the Virginia Theater thinks it needs security for a group of gray-haired people watching a gray-haired comic, maybe we should have security walking around our downtown area,” said bruno.

It’s true, says Sampson.

“We know the police are understaffed, but we need help. We have been asking for it for a long time,” she said.

The Esquire closes early (1 a.m.), closes its outdoor patios at 9 p.m., locks one of its doors at 10 p.m., and uses a doorman for the first time.

“What we have a problem with,” she said, “is people drinking alcohol from open containers on the street, underage people sitting in their cars drinking and driving, blocking the parking lot, blocking the road. They completely block off Walnut Street, so you can’t drive there if you want, four cars deep.

“And then these people want to come into the business to feed themselves, to see their friends, to use the toilets. And then when we refuse them entry because they are carrying their own alcohol or they are under 21, we are threatened.

“They say they’ll meet you after work. There are now many bars in the city center where I know employees have been punched, kicked, cars have been broken into.

The problem isn’t the downtown homeless, bar owners say. It’s mostly young people.

“It’s not like the good old days where people would come in and you carded them to the table and if they were under 21 you kicked them out,” Sampson said. “We can’t control it now.”

“We’re not trying to tell a bunch of people they can’t be downtown,” Meyer said. “It’s just that the behavior that’s happening now has to change. We need to curb this behavior.

City council members appeared unsure whether hiring five unarmed security guards from the black-owned, Chicago-based AGB Investigative Services Inc. would solve the problem.

“I think it’s worth a try,” council member Daniel Iniguez said.

“We have to try it and see if it works, and if it doesn’t, we’ll adjust,” Mayor Deb Frank Feinen said.

“I just don’t know if anyone is terribly excited about this,” said board member Matt Gladney.

Michael Dade, AGB’s business development manager, tried to assure business owners that the presence of the security guards – who will be carrying body cameras but not guns, Tasers or pepper spray – would make a difference .

“It will take a few weeks,” he said, “but once the word gets out, you’ll see a difference.”

Dade said Champaign’s issues aren’t unique and he doesn’t think he’ll have trouble finding people to fill the job, which the documents say pays about $48 an hour.

“It’s nothing unusual. It’s nothing new for AGB,” Dade said. those agents when our contract there expires.”

With warmer weather on the way and Champaign’s new Neighborhood Ambassadors, who will start working downtown in late May, Feinen said, “I think we’re going to see a resurgence of what it was before. the pandemic. It’s time to start enjoying again.

Sampson was more reserved. “I’m excited in theory, but the warmer weather definitely makes the issues worse,” she said. “It was like that last summer.”

David H. Henry