He says downtowns need good jobs, quality places to live and streets that people feel safe walking. He says his organization contributes to making downtown welcoming by hosting events, supporting public art and employing “clean teams” to empty garbage cans and pick up litter.
He says we often treat the symptoms of our downtown troubles – street disorder, broken windows, people sleeping in doorways, rampant drug use – but we don’t get at the root problem, which he identifies as people who are disconnected from work and home. “The strongest correlation between increases in street disorder and homelessness is with housing cost and unemployment,” he says.
So, as a business leader, he advocates for and supports affordable housing and skills and jobs training. He acknowledges those mandates are way bigger than a business-improvement organization, or even a city, can manage. In fact, those are provincial and federal matters, “but all the issues happen in our areas,” he says.
Fenske says a large residential population downtown is crucial. Winnipeg now has 18,000 downtown residents, up from 14,000 in 2014. She says she doesn’t expect all the former office workers to come back, ever, and that Winnipeg is trying to turn its downtown from a central business district to a social gathering district, bringing more people in the evenings and on weekends.
In Winnipeg, they also created the Downtown Community Safety Partnership, a non-profit made up of leaders from business, government, and police and fire services. It has frontline teams prepared to respond to safety concerns and social disorder. Responses can include assistance and referrals, social needs assessments, advanced first aid, outreach and courtesy walks. “For us, where we see the opportunity is when everyone comes to the table together,” Fenske says. “Every issue a city has is solvable, but you have to decide who you’re working with to solve it and you have to commit to doing it.”