No quick fixes to downtown woes
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I know. You’ve read the headline and have probably said something like this to yourself: “Good grief, not another column about downtown safety and revitalization. Really, who cares? I don’t live down there, don’t shop down there, and I avoid the area as much as I can. It doesn’t matter to me.”
At the risk of beating a dead horse, there are several reasons why you should pay attention to what is happening downtown, and what is being proposed in order to solve the problem.
First, the decline of downtown Brandon has caused a massive drop in the value of properties in the area. As a consequence, the total of property taxes paid to the City of Brandon and Brandon School Division — which are based on the assessed value of those properties — will also decline.
For more than a century, property taxes paid by downtown properties were a major chunk of the city’s (and school division’s) annual revenues. All that cash from downtown helped keep property taxes levied on homes all over the city lower than they would have otherwise been. With the value of downtown properties plunging, the tax burden will continue to shift to homeowners and non-downtown businesses.
It will mean higher property taxes on every home in Brandon, and the problem will worsen until the problems downtown are solved on a long-term basis.
Second, it is naive to think the problems in the downtown area can be confined to that area. People who break into cars, homes, garages and sheds may live in the core, but they carry out their activities in every neighbourhood of the city. They go where the “good stuff” is.
Third, there is the issue of how the plight of downtown impacts the way our city is perceived by visitors, and how that perception impairs our ability to attract business investment, as well as doctors, nurses and other professionals.
Those are just three reasons why we all have a vested interest in fixing the problems facing downtown Brandon. And that’s why we should be paying attention to the report issued last month by the downtown safety and wellness task force. The report was presented at the Dec. 19 meeting of city council. A copy is found on the city website as an attachment to the agenda for that meeting.
When reading the report, a number of things jump off the page, starting with a summary of how many businesses and employees have left downtown in the past few years. The report lists 25 businesses and hundreds of jobs that have either been lost or moved to other areas of the city. In reality, the numbers are even higher. There are several businesses not listed, nor are businesses that have reduced staff or transferred them to non-downtown locations. Also missing are businesses that plan to leave their downtown locations when their leases expire.
Beyond that, the report documents the number of homeless people more than doubled from 2019 to Dec. 13, 2022 — from 355 to 838. Based on other reports published over the past few months, we know that a substantial portion of those people are not from Brandon or even Westman.
There is a lot of useful information in the report, but most noteworthy are the 10 recommendations. They include working with Indigenous stakeholders to create transitional housing, establishing an Indigenous wellness centre, Indigenous partnerships for residential and commercial development, a mobile outreach unit to guide people to social and health services, and “proactive bylaw enforcement including graffiti, public consumption, nuisance, loitering, panhandling and trespassing.”
Most Brandonites would suggest the last one should be the top priority. Indeed, consistent enforcement of bylaws already on the books would make a big difference downtown.
That said, the problem is that most of the 10 recommendations are either outside the jurisdiction of the city to address, beyond the city’s financial capabilities, or both. They require consistent leadership and millions of dollars from the provincial and federal governments. That means none of the most-urgent recommendations will be implemented any time soon, if ever.
And it means there is no such thing as a quick, affordable and lasting solution for downtown’s problems.
In fact, there may be no solution at all. In an ironic twist, there is a sentence near the end of the report that says this: “One cautionary tale, not often communicated, but a factor all the same, is once a community provides services better than other cities around them, people will migrate to that centre.”
In other words, our attempts to fix downtown Brandon’s problems could actually make the problem bigger. It could cause the problems in downtown to expand into other areas of the city.
Even worse, spending millions of tax dollars on “solutions” may actually force us to spend millions more, causing an increasingly higher tax burden for homeowners.
Those are the big reasons why you should be paying careful attention to this issue, and why you should be making your concerns and advice known to your city councillor, MLA and MP.
It makes me wonder if the better, more affordable long-term solution for downtown Brandon is a wrecking ball, a bulldozer and a new vision for a safer, more modern downtown.