Downtown Victoria businesses are looking to work together to hire a private security company after facing low response rates from the Victoria Police Department.
The lower Johnson Street shopping district, known locally as LoJo, is a vibrant collection of local shops. Recently efforts have been made to make the area more welcoming, including the addition of decorative lights along the block and more security cameras.
However, the area has also seen a spike in thefts and in mental health incidences also witnessed in other areas of the city.
“It’s definitely increased over the last year,” said Lili Butterfield, owner of Dancing Lily, who recently had a person enter her shop and refuse to leave. “There was someone in the shop who was heightened, and it felt unsafe for the staff. We called police but didn’t get a response.”
Butterfield said she’s also had more consistent thefts in her shop, despite loss prevention measures she’s taken.
Tara Savrtka, co-owner of Baggins Shoes, had a similar incident where an intoxicated person refused to leave her shop for over 30 minutes.
“The non-emergency [police] line is almost useless, and unless you’re being threatened with a weapon the police won’t respond, even if the individual refuses to leave,” Savrtka said. “[It’s] very frustrating for staff and we just want to ensure we can make them feel safe.”
On Friday morning LoJo businesses and the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) met with a security company to explore options of having people patrol the area, or someone who can respond quickly to any incidences.
“The DVBA will be sending notices after the meeting to the business owners to see if we get a 60 per cent uptake to see if we can hire,” said Shelley Gudgeon, co-owner of Il Terrazzo Restaurant. “We’re like a mall, and we would like it to be that way for the whole street. It sends a message that there’s added security like you get at Hillside Shopping Centre or Mayfair Mall.”
Il Terrazzo has hired their own private security company for the past seven years to help customers and staff feel safe when leaving and heading into Waddington Alley late at night.
“Not only did we get a slow response from police, but we got no response,” Gudgeon said. “Waddington Alley used to be very sketchy… things have improved with the addition of more security cameras at the Salvation Army, and with the installation of lights which has drawn more traffic between Yates and Johnson Street.”
Business owners agree that police have simply been too overwhelmed with other calls to take on lower-priority issues. VicPD Chief Const. Del Manak spoke with the media about the matter on Thursday, agreeing with the business owners’ discussions and efforts.
“I know there’s a level of frustration with a number of merchants, not just specific to the Lower Johnson/Yates area, but over downtown as well, and I can tell you we’re doing the best job we can to support small businesses,” Manak said. “We have between 25 and sometimes upwards of 45 calls for service that are holding where people have phoned 911, and they’re waiting for the Victoria Police Department to respond to their emergency.”
The businesses believe banding together is the best way to keep the area welcoming for customers and staff alike.
“What we’re really working on is creating that network on that street. We’re making a decision imminently in the next month, and we’re just helping each other,” Gudgeon said. “It’s such a beautiful street and we want to encourage people to come down and shop. The more people that come down, the safer it becomes.”