No Panacea, but a Placebo May Help Downtown, OEV

By Jason Menard

I love downtown. I enjoy working downtown, I enjoy playing downtown, and I enjoy eating downtown. But I also understand why so many don’t.

More importantly, I respect their right to have that opinion.

For downtown to succeed, some people need to get off their high horses and try a little understanding. But it’s likely not the people you think.

It’s a very challenging and emotional topic. As soon as anyone says, “They really need to do something about the drug dealers and homeless conglomerating on Dundas & Richmond,” the usual suspects come out of the wordwork.

They trot out the usual statements about “core causes,” “understanding,” and “larger solutions.” The underlying tone of these messages are “these are people too. How dare you judge them?”

And they’re right.

Homelessness, drug addiction, crime – it’s all part and parcel of larger societal issues. They need bigger solutions than just cameras and a few more beat cops. But that’s a solution for another debate.

Cameras are not a panacea to solve crime or drug-related issues – anyone stating that, either as a proponent or opponent is doing the issue a disservice. Simply removing undesirable behaviour from the street corners of downtown is not a solution either.

But for the people whom you want to entice to shop, live, or visit the core, these actions aren’t a panacea, but they may be a placebo.

We need to approach Downtown and the OEV as business units. And, as businesses, they have to market themselves as such. But it’s not just marketing what you have and expecting people to come – it’s about giving them compelling reasons why they should want to.

That’s where these areas can fall down — either for legitimate reasons or perceived ones. And like in politics, in business perception is often reality.

Those so quick to demand respect for the drug dealers seem to forget to respect the thoughts, needs, and desires of the very people they’re condemning.

It’s not wrong to want to go some place and not be harassed. It’s not wrong to want to bring your kids somewhere where they won’t be subjected. It’s not wrong to place a value on convenience.

On a daily basis, while walking downtown, I experience something that I would consider a deterrent to returning downtown. Yesterday morning, a woman came out of a bar (at 8 a.m.), barreled across the street and elbowed me in the ribs as I was standing waiting for the light to change. I brushed it off as an accident, until I saw her walk further down, throw two traffic cones into the street, wave her fist at an idling driver, and swear at two other pedestrians, all in a two-minute window.

Just this week, I’ve been approached by dealers three times, I’ve witnessed one screaming row between a man and a woman on the corner, I’ve seen countless drug deals, and one fight. All at main intersections; all during lunch or while waiting for a ride home.

On the other hand, just this week, I’ve had some amazing meals; I’ve had great conversations with local store owners and restaurateurs; and I’ve chatted with friends I’ve bumped into along the way.

I’m willing to put up with the negative stuff to enjoy everything that the downtown core has to offer. I’m willing to turn a blind eye to drug deals and aggressive behaviour, because there’s some great art and dining options in the core.

But I’m also 100 per cent understanding of why some people aren’t.

Very often, the argument for supporting the core boils down to a variation of “that’s what people should do.” I disagree. People should do what’s best for them.

If a 65-year-old woman says she feels unsafe in the downtown, should I harangue her with reasons why she’s wrong, or should I try to understand why she feels that way? If a young family doesn’t want to bring their kids somewhere where they’ll be exposed to rampant profanity, should I tell them to toughen up (or point out the numerous other places where they’ll hear a few f-bombs)?

No. We need to listen, we need to be as understanding as we expect others to be, and we need to think like a business. And we need to address those issues.

Cameras, police, and other mainly cosmetic changes won’t fix the root problem of drug addiction or homelessness. But that may not be the problem we’re trying to solve here.

There are two issues that often get wrapped up in this debate: one is the greater societal issue that’s forcing people into undesirable situations; the other, though, is much more simple – how do we get people to shop downtown?

Basic customer service is the answer: figure out what the customer wants and give it to them. Instead of lamenting the mall mentality, try to understand what drives people to those areas. The answer? Convenience and security.

I know, for the most part, when I go into White Oaks Mall, I’m not going to walk by a used hypodermic, be offered drugs, or stumble into a fight. I know I can park easily and find what I need.

So is it wrong for consumers to favour that experience over coming downtown? I don’t think so.

Not every solution has to solve all the world’s problems. Like the people complaining about the Tim Horton’s guy not donating to charity the money he used to buy 500 people coffee, there are those who will never be happy. Better is never enough.

But too often we let perfect get in the way of better. In searching for the magic bullet that solves all the world’s ills, we undermine the very real, smaller improvements that will enable us to incrementally improve our situation.

I’ve yet to come across a panacea that works for everything. But I have read many abstracts that show the placebo effect is real.

When it comes to downtown improvement, it’s not about just treating the symptoms. We’re not even identifying the right disease yet.

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