During a meeting that was at times loud and emotionally charged, merchants aired their frustrations about worsening conditions in the ByWard Market.
For many present at the meeting Tuesday, drug use and homelessness in the area only seem to be getting worse with little relief in sight.
“It’s not a scary place only at night,” said Chantal Biro, who runs the fashion boutique Schad on Sussex Drive. “Now it’s becoming a scary place during the day.”
She said her team has had two break-ins in as many weeks, including someone stealing $1,000 worth of merchandise.
Biro, a decades-long tenant in the area, said she became concerned after learning her neighbours’ windows had been smashed.
“Now I’m worried. I’ve taken things out of my window so that things aren’t as attractive to grab,” she said.
Retailers requested an audience with Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, but instead met with city staff, the ward councillor, the head of the ByWard Market District Authority and a representative from the mayor’s office.
The dozens of business owners in attendance raised frustrations about a wide range of topics, including bylaw and police enforcement, parking, security and a gradual loss of the activities that once drew families and shoppers to the market.
“I guess what I’m hearing here is people saying ‘What is the immediate plan for safety?'” said Phil Emond, a gallerist with the Gordon Harrison Canadian Landscape Gallery on Sussex who spearheaded the meeting.
“We just don’t need to talk about it. We need a change now. What’s going to change?”
Policing the market ‘very challenging’
Homelessness and drug addiction are major challenges in the ByWard Market, with many who were in attendance feeling those realities have taken a toll on several nearby blocks.
But how the city and others should tackle these problems isn’t always clear.
“Enforcement is not always the key,” said Const. Sébastien Lemay, a community police officer assigned to the area.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Lemay said it’s becoming “very challenging” to police the market, but echoed sentiments of colleagues who have discussed how arresting people isn’t always the solution.
“We have made connections with different agencies, different service providers,” he said. “So again, it’s looking at these individuals that might struggle with addiction, and seeing which services can help them.”
Kalin McCluskey, director of policy with the mayor’s office, discussed upcoming changes to 911 and said a separate phone number that will act as an alternative for mental health issues will also be rolling out “within the upcoming months.”
“So when things are in distress, you can call it and get a tailored response to that person in crisis, recognizing that not every call is a police call,” she said.
‘No easy solution’
The city hopes one solution to revitalizing the market comes in its latest governing change: the ByWard Market District Authority, a newly formed municipal corporation that will act to amalgamate and replace Ottawa Markets and the dissolving BIA.
“The view is this is our most special part of Ottawa,” said Court Curry, who works with the city’s economic development department.
“It should be our premier, most elevated neighborhood, but there are multiple people with competing visions, competing priorities, competing advocacy in a very small space.”
The ByWard Market District Authority has been given as much autonomy and as many possibilities to generate revenue as possible, he said, adding it should run almost as its own village.
The authority will begin to ramp up its work come September and October, including establishing a business advisory committee and re-establishing a community safety and security committee.
“I also have to acknowledge we’re late to the game on this,” said Zachary Dayler, the authority’s executive director who served the same role for Ottawa Markets. “We’re probably five [to] 10 years behind where we need to be.”
“But we’re here and so we’re going to move forward.”
Biro says simply increasing security would help business owners feel safer as a short-term solution.
In the long-term, she believes the concentration of social services and the types of businesses that populate the market should be reconsidered.
“I know there’s no easy solution,” she said. “Otherwise, I think we would have already solved it.”