Task force to address downtown loitering
The law is a blunt force tool that can’t be applied indiscriminately, they warned at the session, held at the Golden Valley Brewery & Restaurant. It’s never going to solve all the problems, which include loitering, panhandling, vandalism, tagging and smoking, often occurring as a backdrop to offensive language, actions and dress.
The MDA brought in government, church, law enforcement and community leaders to meet with merchants on the issue, which dates back to the founding of McMinnville’s Downtown Historic District, if not earlier. It ultimately decided to commission a task force to develop various solutions.
Manager Cassie Sollars compiled suggestions made at the meeting.
They included developing public restrooms, augmenting local shelter services and facilities, redoubling efforts to combat chronic homelessness, seeking additional police patrols, clamping down on behavior crossing the line to harassment, and attacking other illegal and negative behaviors to the extent possible, including public drug use, alcohol use and panhandling. It also included the possibility of removing the benches from the downtown area’s covered kiosks, which join the US Bank Plaza, Cornerstone Coffee and Lower and Upper City Park as gathering spots, and adding video surveillance capability.
“This is a big, big problem that won’t be solved this morning,” Sollars said as the meeting opened. That fact became painfully obvious as members of the audience shared their various perspectives.
“Ideally, we are behind the scenes doing things that encourage economic viability,” Noble said of the police department he’s headed the past eight years. “We can encourage people — or discourage people — from coming to McMinnville.”
But he said it takes a partnership to have a real impact on downtown viability. He said the first step is prioritizing issues.
A First Baptist Church representative said lines form outside the church’s bathrooms when it opens in the morning. That raised discussion about the possibility of developing a set of public restrooms downtown, as a means of serving both the local homeless population and visiting tourists, which represent a downtown mainstay.
Noble said efforts to help can have unintended consequences, and that might be the case with public bathrooms. They might not only serve the homeless who already frequent the downtown area, but actually draw more, he said.
He expressed compassion for that segment of the population, but said efforts to help need to be sharply focused. He suggested public bathroom advocates broach that idea with the city council.
Scott Cunningham, owner of the Community Plate restaurant, said he equates what’s happening with graffiti — if it’s not cleaned up right away, he said, it entices others to join in.
He also complained, “My customers are walking through clouds of marijuana smoke,” particularly since closure of the teen-oriented Red Berry boutique. He said grounds of young people have taken to gathering by the vacant storefront, and it serves to deter traffic.
But Noble said, “What makes downtown comfortable for your customers makes it comfortable for all,” including youths who may seem menacing to some. “We can’t force people to move unless somebody breaks the law,” he noted.
He went on to say that he believes his department is only notified of about half of downtown activity that is truly unlawful. He said increased reporting of such activity would be a good starting point.
Cunningham suggested officers park squad cars downtown and take a 30-minute tour of Third Street for half an hour a day for a month. He said more uniformed presence might help by itself.
Noble responded by saying, “We are the smallest department, per capita, in the state of Oregon.” He said he would love to have enough officers to justify some foot patrolling, as it does serve as a good deterrent. But he said he simply doesn’t have the resources.
Sollars said merchants should perhaps take a lead from the city’s successful Park Rangers program and create a patrol of their own. She said grant money might be available to help fund such an effort.
“We can’t expect the police to do this by themselves,” she said. “This is a community issue.”
James Tate, owner of NW Food & Gifts, said police deserve credit for the support they are already providing. He said he was grateful for help they had provided him in connection with recent incidents.
He said one thing that’s helped is going out to talk to youths loitering in the vicinity and explain how they are affecting his family livelihood.
He said he has benches outside already, and will be adding wrought iron benches for a new series of wine tours. He said those need to be available for customer use.
Shirley Venhaus, a broker at Berkshire Hathaway, at the corner of Baker and Third streets, said panhandling is a big problem at her location.
“This is an organized group,” she said. “I can guarantee that.”
The said they have leaders, rules and “established corners.”
And, at times, she feels like she’s being watched. “It gives me the creeps,” she said.
“The difficult part is that what she’s describing is not a crime,” Noble responded. He said that people will drive down and get out of cars to panhandle, in an effort to make money they will never have to report on tax returns.
Some merchants said the panhandling can become aggressive, with panhandlers even wading out into traffic in pursuit of handouts.
Marks encouraged them to call police about any illegal activity they encounter, and be prepared to follow through by testifying in court.
“There’s a lot more that’s happening that goes unreported,” Noble said. “Give us the big picture that’s going on.”
Sollars said the MDA would be looking to involve a broad spectrum of concerned citizens in the task force.
“As downtown manager, I’m concerned with our businesses,” she said. “But I’m also concerned with the overarching social issues.”