As Staff Writer Jessica Fuller reported in Tuesday’s edition, business owners met with City Manager Pete Peterson and other officials Monday to air their gripes about illicit drug use and trade, public urination and defecation and other unacceptable behavior.
Much of the attention about downtown’s dilemma has been focused on the city’s considerable homeless population, which prompted the City Commission in May to bar camping in public spaces as a finable offense. Such was the case again Monday. Vice Mayor Jenny Brock told the group the solution lay in part with how homelessness might be addressed — using mental health and housing resources for mitigation and prevention.
While we see the commission’s camping ban as a punitive redundancy to existing ordinances, we agree with Brock that confronting the roots of homelessness and marshaling more resources would go a long way. We also are thankful for Police Chief Karl Turner’s plans to schedule more officers to be downtown. Increased patrols would certainly help deter illegal behavior.
What will not work, though, is merely jailing and re-jailing the same offenders in a never-ending cycle of recidivism. You will find many frequent fliers in the Washington County Detention Center’s arrest reports each week. Drug and alcohol abuse chiefly is a health and education concern, and if social resources are not employed alongside punitive action, the cycle is sure to repeat itself.
The city’s homeless denizens are not solely to blame for downtown’s strife. Numerous assaults and other criminal offenses are reported each year among residents and visitors. Just last week, a John Sevier Center resident was charged with stabbing another another man outside the subsidized housing tower — one of many such incidents there in recent years. Bar fights also have contributed to downtown’s image issues.
The anxieties are not new by any stretch of the imagination. After the core business district shifted to north Johnson City in the 1970s, downtown became a haven for seedy bar crowds, prostitution, drug sales and panhandling. All have been diminished over the last decade by revitalization resulting from the city’s flood water mitigation efforts and sheer determination among dedicated merchants. In our experience, order vastly has improved downtown. Our staff feels more comfortable than ever making the short walk from our office on West Main Street to enjoy what downtown has to offer.
The merchants say, though, that things are again on a downhill slide. They hope the city will step up its efforts to alleviate the drawbacks to working, living and visiting downtown.
Whether real or merely perceived, image is everything. If downtown is to continue its upward trend, it must be seen as a place where families can eat, shop and play without concern for health and safety. We believe that’s already true by and large, but the merchants’ complaints are justified in that any external factor taking away from business is bad for them and bad for Johnson City.
Downtown’s needs are complex and require a multifaceted approach in law enforcement, infrastructure, business recruitment and the devotion of social resources. Diligence will be key.