Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Nov. 17, 2008)


Down times for downtowns


  By John Martin

Drugs and crime appeared to play a major role in civic campaigns across the province.  More specifically, candidates and voters gave particular attention to a phenomenon taking place throughout Canada and the U.S. Iím referring to the deteriorating conditions of so many downtown cores; particularly in small and medium sized communities. With few exceptions, the story repeats itself in community after community. Retailers and small businesses continue to abandon the downtown core as an ever-increasing number of addicts, dealers, prostitutes, panhandlers, vagrants and others stake out their turf.

From a business point of view, it makes perfect sense to bid adieu to the downtown core. There is little a merchant can do when panhandlers and others are making their customers feel uncomfortable and threatened. The police may be unable or unwilling to respond to calls for service regarding nuisance and problem behaviour. Essentially, the disrepute and anti-social activities taking place on the downtown sidewalks have had a significant impact on business. They also serve to make downtown districts unattractive and undesirable for families and law-abiding residents.

The situation is generally quite different out at the plaza or mall. Here, weíre dealing with private, not public, property. Merchants typically pool their resources and hire private security who, unlike the police, are available on the spot. When we throw other factors into the mix, such as ample parking and location, it often makes little sense, both as a consumer and a service provider, to do business in the downtown core.

Consequently, more and more downtown districts have witnessed less and less legitimate enterprise and increased disrepute. Barring or removing undesirables from the downtown core is virtually impossible. Expecting the police to enforce the letter of the law as they might do in a residential area is, regrettably, naÔve. The situation is further complicated as the courts continue to rule in favour of the rights of drug users and vagrants, all the while ignoring the damage being done to communities by these groups. But there are a handful of strategies some locales have implemented to reclaim downtown areas.

One is to make doing business in the downtown area too tempting for entrepreneurs to not at least give it their best shot. This typically involves completely eliminating, or at least drastically reducing, the red tape and costs associated with doing business. Everything from business licenses to local taxes and service charges can be re-evaluated to encourage merchants to set shop or continue doing business downtown. Itís one of the few ways to compete with the many perks and advantages of pulling up stakes and relocating to the new plaza.

Other strategies involve flooding the downtown core with year-round, family oriented activities. Car shows, bbq and chili competitions, street theater, international music and food fairs, farmer markets; these and similar events send out a message that the downtown area is alive and healthy. Nothing better denotes the character of a geographical area than the manner in which it is being used. If itís not being utilized in a pro-social and friendly way, it will be used otherwise.

Sadly, these last few decades have seen wholesale deterioration of downtown districts. Rather than being the focal point of a community, they have been abandoned and turned over to the least productive and anti-social among us. It would be nice to think things are about to improve as a new cohort of civic governments come into office. But as long as we continue to emphasize the rights of panhandlers and addicts over the rights of law-abiding citizens to enjoy their communities, we may be waiting more than a few election cycles yet.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2008