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Faced with crime, downtown Victoria business asks: 'Is it worth it?'

Several businesses in downtown Victoria had their front windows smashed this past week in what Victoria police say are random acts of vandalism. No goods were stolen, but shops are left with the escalating costs of replacing the glass and the emotional toll of the deteriorating conditions.
The window at Anian on Johnson Street was boarded up on Friday, after a spate of vandalism in downtown Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

After more than a half a century, one of downtown Victoria’s most durable businesses is wondering if it’s worth staying.

“You’re walking on pins and needles because we don’t know what we’re coming into each morning,” says Tara Savrtka, a co-owner of Baggins Shoes on Lower Johnson Street. Baggins has been operating downtown since 1969.

“Broken glass, used needles, human excrement… You pull extra money out for payroll to have [at least] two people working even in slow periods so they can feel safe,” Savrtka said.

“The lease is up in a year and a half and you have to wonder, is it still worth it?”

Three neighbouring businesses on Lower Johnson had their front windows smashed this past week — a trail of broken glass that also included Earl’s Restaurant and the Garrick’s Head Pub on Government Street — in what Victoria police describe as random acts of vandalism.

Police have identified a suspect and released an image from grainy surveillance footage, but hadn’t yet made an arrest.

No goods were stolen, but operators are left with the escalating costs of replacing the glass and the emotional toll that the deteriorating conditions downtown are taking on owners and staff.

Jeff Bray of the Downtown Victoria Business Association said deductibles for broken glass “are about $1,000, if you’re lucky.”

“Some businesses lose their insurance because it keeps happening, so they eat the [full] replacement cost or board it up until they sell enough to cover the costs.”

Bray said the greater cost is the slipping morale and increasing stress of constantly having to deal with vandalism and other issues he said are usually caused by repeat offenders and those facing serious addiction problems.

“It’s to the point of people not renewing leases,” Bray said. “Downtown might be too much and they can look for other places to do business.”

Mirko Filipovic, who owns Themis Security and operates 24-hour patrols for business and property owner clients, said the number of calls for service has increased more than 20 per cent from the same period a year ago.

Uniformed Themis personnel wear body cameras and are often first of the scene of vandalism, overdoses and violence, and provide their footage to police for use in identifying suspects. Most patrol units also carry sheets of plywood and portable drills to protect businesses and condominiums from further vandalism and theft, Filipovic said.

“The merchants and property owners in the thick of things downtown are definitely frustrated,” he said. “It’s not just the vandalism. You have two people sleeping or doing drugs at your door. To the merchant trying to open their doors, it’s a high priority and they don’t want staff to deal with a dangerous situation.

“VicPD might show up right away or later depending on the the priority of their calls, so it’s very frustrating for business or even strata owners where people live.”

Ultimately, de-escalating crime downtown rests with all three levels of government, said Bray.

Premier David Eby in November announced a public safety plan for the province that included more mental-health response teams and an increased focus on repeat offenders.

Last month, VicPD and Island Health launched a new unit designed to de-escalate potential mental-health crises. The program pairs a plainclothes officer and a health professional in an unmarked car.

The NDP government’s throne speech delivered Monday repeated Eby’s pledge that B.C. would work with the other provinces and territories to press Ottawa for urgent reform to Criminal Code bail rules. The speech also acknowledged a need to improve access to substance-use care by expanding treatment and recovery services.

Bray said Victoria city council shouldn’t be turning a blind eye to what’s happening right outside their chambers in Centennial Square, where open drug use is common. He said city hall is often locked with a security guard to let people in.

He noted nearly all of the social services in the region, including shelters and safe consumption sites, are within a five-block radius of downtown. “That wouldn’t be acceptable anywhere else,” he said.

Savrtka, from Baggins Shoes, said she feels the downtown hasn’t been the same since the start of the pandemic. There are fewer people going there since work-from-home policies started, and reports of crime are giving consumers second thoughts about shopping in the area, she said.

“We seem to be left to our own devices, so there’s kind of a lack of optimism,” she said.

— With files from Cindy E. Harnett

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