WHALLEY — Some may see empty storefronts and a plethora of fences in the Whalley area as metaphors for the area’s social woes.
Black fencing around the Ukranian Orthodox Church of St. Mary on 135A Street serves as a barrier to keep the struggles of the street at bay.
A former furniture store at the corner of 108th Avenue and King George Boulevard sits empty, as does a more recently vacated building at 105A Avenue that housed a KFC for more than two decades.
Soon, another business will close its doors, just steps away from the former fast-food joint.
Eddie MacNaughton and family have run Motorcycle World on King George since 1999, but they’re packing up shop and heading for the Tri-Cities this fall.
“Illegal drug use right in front of us is a concern, the amount of needles every day, the human waste every single day, garbage,” said MacNaughton.
“Last year I spent over $5,000 in fence repairs only to find out for instance, two weeks ago, we got broken into and we found the stolen propane tank on 135A Street.
“We’re a small mom-and-pop place, not big box, and people continue to shop here because they like that. I spend a lot of time and a lot of money advertising to get people here,” McNaughton told the Now-Leader. “We’re thriving despite what is happening, but could be doing so much better if this place was cleaned up. We can’t continue this madness that’s been happening for years. They keep telling us it’s going to change.”
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(MacNaughton’s shop Motorcycle World. Photo: Google Street View)
McNaughton said he figured “everything was going to be roses” after the new city hall opened in 2014 just blocks away from his store.
“But it was a lot better of an area 10 years ago than it is today,” MacNaughton said. “It was a lot better even a year ago. It grows and grows and grows…. How long can you continue to bail out the boat before you give up and let it sink?”
MacNaughton said four years ago, the city told businesses a new Green Timbers shelter would be opening soon, but added, “here we are four years later and we’re told now they just got funding from the province.”
MacNaughton was one of many frustrated business owners at a Downtown Surrey BIA (DSBIA) meeting on Thursday (April 6).
The meeting’s aim, said DSBIA chair Bill Cunningham, was to “get the people that are most directly affected on both sides of the 135A Street situation, in particular with the RCMP and their new (Surrey Outreach Team), and the business owners on the ground to be speaking directly, face to face.”
While some, including MacNaughton, were peeved that Mayor Linda Hepner or other councillors weren’t in attendance, Cunningham said they weren’t invited.
“It was never meant to be an engagement at the political level, was very much meant to be engagement at the street level,” said Cunningham.
“People directly involved in the task force, we invited Fraser Health, we invited city bylaw enforcement, social planning, public safety, I would say we probably intentionally did not invite political leaders, not because they aren’t important or part of this but because this was a chance for people on the street to talk face to face.”
“A lot of frustration” was voiced, he added.
“Our members have been waiting for a long time for some positive change in this area, so this was an opportunity for them to vent some of that frustration,” Cunningham told the Now-Leader.
But many, he said, expressed hope.
“Our members are cautiously optimistic that there will be some positive change as a result of this task force and new approach, but it’s a very guarded optimism. This problem has been decades in the making.”
There is hope that the RCMP’s new Surrey Outreach Team, a pilot project consisting of 12 Mounties and four bylaw officers that became operational 24/7 on Jan. 4, can make change, he continued. (You can read more about the Surrey Outreach Team in Friday’s Now-Leader.)
“My perception walking away from the meeting is that those business owners were able to walk away with a little hope,” said Cunningham. “Our members are negatively affected by the social issues that the Strip is facing, this is their home, their business home, they want to be in this neighbourhood, they want to be actively engaged and part of the solution.”
The RCMP reports a drop in crime since the Surrey Outreach Team set up shop on 135A Street.
“We have seen a significant decline in crimes against persons year over year when we compared March 2017 to 2016. That crime type would include personal robberies and assaults, and there has been a 32 per cent decrease, “ said Surrey RCMP Corporal Alanna Dunlop.
“Our team is very engaged in the area with residents, those that frequent the 135A Street area, and based on our 24-hour presence with the dedicated team, we are able to intervene early when there are new people in the area, and/or monitor for criminal activity.”
Dunlop noted there has been a recent increase in the number of people on 135A Street. “This may be attributed to the fact that the cold weather shelters closed in the month of March,” she said. “We are hopeful that through ongoing engagement with our community partners we can connect people with services so that they can transition out of the area.”
A permanent trailer for the Surrey Outreach Team officially opened Monday (April 10), which replaced the team’s temporary command centre. It has a reception area, telephones and internet landlines, and will serve as a place for daily briefings.
But it’s too little too late for MacNaughton, who said customers simply don’t want to come to his store with tents lined up out back.
And with Fraser Health planning for yet another social service for the area to open this spring – a safe injection site – he has reached his limit.
“So now a safe injection site, the bottle exchange, soup kitchen, all in one block. There’s also four cheque cashing places between 104th and 108th (avenues) and two or three pharmacies. Who’s zoning this? Who’s allowing it?” he questioned.
NDP MLA Bruce Ralston attended the BIA meeting and said he heard “continuing concern about the viability of the businesses” there.
He added, “It’s grinding them down… They’ve reported, they’ve been to meetings, they’re not optimistic.”
Ralston said many businesses have taken to building fences to keep people off their property. “It’s actually alleviated some of the problems, but it’s kind of sad that that’s what you have to do,” he remarked.
Ralston noted his campaign office, at 10619 King George Blvd., is “intimately immersed in the challenges,” just a few doors down from MacNaughton’s motorcycle shop.
Ralston vowed to help the city recognize some of the “unacknowledged assets that are there,” referring to the many ethnic businesses in the area.
“There’s some huge opportunities to create a really interesting diverse shopping district, along with the businesses that have been there for a long time. They’re investing their heart and soul here.
“There are things happening,” he added, referring to the revitalization of the Dell Shopping Centre across the street from his campaign office, “I think it’s just the progress is slow.”