A reported increase in homelessness and drug use in downtown Lethbridge was top of mind for many as the Heart of Our City Committee addressed city council on Monday, giving an update on projects underway in the downtown core.
For more than a decade, the Heart of Our City Committee has worked closely with Lethbridge City Council to develop and revitalize the downtown core. On Monday, the committee presented its annual report, detailing a “challenging” 2018.
“Certainly the drug crisis had come to a head,” said committee chair Dawn Leite.
“And we had implemented new parking meters that had caused a bit of a stir in the downtown core, and then there was certainly some safety concerns around people coming to downtown as a result of the drug crisis.”
Leite said the presentation was aimed at highlighting concerns and “the programs that we re-evaluated to develop, to be able to help with mitigating those concerns… and to turn things around in our downtown.”
According to some community stakeholders, things are already on the upswing.
Ted Stilson, the executive director of the Downtown Lethbridge Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ), believes better days are in the near future.
“Our business community is very strong right now,” said Stilson. “We’re rebounding after a tough last year, we’re already seeing changes.”
Stilson said the BRZ has worked very closely with the Heart of Our City Committee since its inception and he thinks there are many successes to be celebrated in the downtown.
“We have about 90 per cent occupancy in the downtown core, we have a lot of investment happening,” Stilson said. “Even though we had a challenging 2018, that investment is still happening.”
Stilson credits the update to the city council and its ongoing strategies around supporting development and enjoyment.
“I think we’re well on our way to people feeling safe in the downtown again,” he added.
Implemented in January, the 2019 Downtown Clean and Safe Strategy was developed by city council in collaboration with groups including the Heart of Our City Committee, Downtown Lethbridge BRZ, Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce, Lethbridge Police Service and Canadian Mental Health Association. The strategy includes 12 initiatives to address concerns about the cleanliness and safety of downtown Lethbridge.
Of the initiatives, a major one will roll out this week — the Lethbridge Police Watch Program lets community volunteers act as an additional level of safety in the downtown.
“We’re anticipating and excited about the community watch program, which will be more eyes and ears on the street,” Stilson said.
Leite echoed the optimism.
“We’re looking forward to seeing the potential for improved visibility on the streets and just increased people downtown,” Leite said.
The next step in the quest for revitalization in the core is a new master plan for the Heart of Our City Committee.
“We’re looking at the next iteration of our master plan, which determines what we need to be doing to encourage growth, encourage activity and vibrancy in our downtown,” Leite said.
“We’ve checked a lot of those pieces off over the last 11 years, but now we need to identify what those next steps are to continue to see this revitalization continue for the next 10 years.”
According to Leite, that process begins with a detailed look at what worked and what didn’t work in the first edition of the master plan. The committee has also hired a consultant to work on the plan.
Community engagement by the committee in the next 12 to 18 months will help the Heart of Our City to fill in the gaps of what the public would like to see before the next plan is released.