Greatest misconception: downtown isn’t safe

At a Downtown Winnipeg BIZ-sponsored session attended by WinnipegREALTORS® representatives, Mayor Sam Katz strongly expressed his desire to tackle more downtown issues. 

The mayor’s comments and response to queries from downtown business members and stakeholders were well thought out and not candy-coated with wishful thinking (i.e., civic government has all the solutions). This was especially true when it came to social issues such as homelessness. All levels of government need to participate, as well as other sectors of the community who deal in poverty, health and shelter-related issues, he added.

The week following the meet-and-greet with the mayor, a  cabinet shuffle placed Deputy-mayor Justin Swandel in charge of the downtown development committee, while the mayor placed himself in charge of intergovernmental affairs. Time will tell if more emphasis will be placed on the downtown, but it certainly seemed that way judging from Katz’s views on what he believes can happen downtown to make it a more vibrant place to work, live and play.

WinnipegREALTORS® has set up its own sub-committee to come up with recommendations on the downtown. To a large extent, the recommendations it put forward in its 1999 downtown mixed-use development and revitalization report have been acted upon, but the board knows  more work is needed in terms of helping make the downtown livelier, more exciting and safer.

A passionate spokesman for the inner city is Stefano Grande, the Downtown Biz’s executive director. One item Grande feels needs to be stressed — a point he reiterated at the session with Mayor Katz — is public safety in the downtown. 

During a coffee-table discussion at the Starbucks in the newly-refurbished Radisson Hotel, Grande outlined his concerns about the misconceptions that hurt the downtown. 

The text of his discussion is as follows:

“Despite the fact that Winnipeg was once again named the Murder Capital of Canada, your downtown is safe. 

“One of downtown’s greatest misconceptions is that it isn’t safe, but looking at CrimeStat, published by the Winnipeg Police, downtown crime is actually down 21 per cent this year over last year, and the downtown only accounted for 403 of the 9,986 crimes (four per cent) that have happened in Winnipeg in 2009. 

“The police have said it themselves — there isn’t much crime downtown. 

“The problem lies not only in how statistics are reported to the media, but the fact that downtown attracts a lot of media attention, whether it’s good or bad. 

“We acknowledge they are just doing their job, but looking at the crime statistics map, downtown falls into District 1, an area actually much larger than downtown. 

“When downtown crime stats are reported, the media is often just looking at the District 1 number and is not giving an accurate picture. We’ve been working with Winnipeg Police to change this. 

“Naturally, the negative perceptions of downtown safety aren’t attributed to the media and statistics alone. Poverty, public intoxication and homelessness are very real concerns and are evident to anyone that comes downtown. This reality bothers some even if no crime is being committed. It is often these social factors that translate into fear for one's safety.

“The thing is, downtown’s isn't an issue of crime, it’s an issue of dealing with society’s most disadvantaged. The main issue with these negative misconceptions of downtown’s safety is they get in the way of its revitalization, something everyone should be worried about. 

“We do know the re-birth of our downtown is real. Judging by the millions of people visiting downtown today, a vibrant core can be achieved, despite the challenges of crime, poverty and homelessness. Incredible city centres, like those in Montreal, Vancouver, Portland or Seattle, experience much greater social and crime concerns than we do, but nevertheless vibrancy flourishes because their citizens believe in their downtowns, which are built on sound development principles.

“With our partners, the BIZ is working hard to manage these social issues that affect downtown, but things like public intoxication and panhandling are the result of something that can't be fixed in an instant. It takes time and commitment from everyone. 

“It’s time that we, as a city, collectively shift into another gear — one that celebrates downtown’s accomplishments, rather than points fingers at often-unfounded safety concerns.

“Supportive housing and employment strategies helps those at-risk to get off the streets, and initiatives like the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ's Outreach Patrol and Downtown Security Network are making the core safer — and we have the numbers to prove it. 

“There are so many reasons to believe in our downtown. Yes, you might be approached by a panhandler, but instead of vilifying downtown because of it, become part of the change you want for your city. Sign a petition, contact a local politician, volunteer your time, or just find one of hundreds of reasons to come downtown. Because long-lasting change that transforms our city really starts with you.”