More than 35 downtown merchants met with city leaders Tuesday night to discuss the daily issues they face while operating their businesses, citing everything from the difficulty of dealing with aggressive panhandlers, to people destroying their property, to what they say is a decline in police presence in and around the Plaza.
The discussion about how to deal with these issues varied, from one man who wants it to be easier for police to make arrests, to those who called for mental and behavioral health services, as well as housing, for those who live and panhandle downtown.
But all were concerned with safety, whether it be themselves, their employees or the tourists who drive Santa Fe’s economy.
“This is the heartbeat of Santa Fe, and it needs to be protected like it’s an asset because this is the moneymaker. This is the breadbasket,” said Nick Maryol, owner of Tia Sophia’s, a restaurant at 210 W. San Francisco St.
The Santa Fe Police Department is responding to merchants’ concerns with Operation Downtown Focus, which began Jan. 27 and will end Sunday, and is meant to bring a more visible police presence to the area. During this period, there will be four uniformed officers assigned to the downtown area each day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
This will be followed with bike patrols beginning Feb. 22, said Kristine Mihelcic, the city’s constituent and council services director. About 30 to 45 days after that, she said, the city plans to host a second meeting with downtown merchants.
City officials will also hold a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday for merchants in the Railyard and Guadalupe district at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, which also will be followed up with a second meeting.
So far, officers have spoken with people at about 50 businesses, said police Capt. Matthew Champlin. The goal is not to collect statistics about what is going on downtown, he said, but rather to learn what issues business owners are dealing with every day.
“I don’t care what the number says if the citizens don’t feel safe,” Champlin said. “So the bottom line is getting in there, seeing what their concerns are and then doing something about it.”
Elizabeth Chapman, who owns the clothing store Zephyr at 125 E. Palace Ave., said she regularly saw police in the downtown area when she bought the store about five years ago. But now she doesn’t see them that often.
She described a person who came into her store, asked her for money and spat on the floor when she didn’t give them any. She also said people have urinated on the mannequins outside of her store.
Cyndi Hall, associate director of Manitou Galleries at 123 W. Palace Ave., said the installation of a $50,000 security system hasn’t helped and that they’ve dealt with a brazen robbery and other incidents in the last year.
Mayor Alan Webber, who led the discussion, brought the conversation back to the need for mental and behavioral health services in the city. He said they are asking officers to put a Band-Aid on a serious issue.
He said homelessness is not a crime, but the city does need people to call police when someone acts outside the acceptable bounds of behavior.
Earl Potter, owner of Five and Dime General Store at 58 E. San Francisco St., said he did not think any of the measures taken by the city to solve the issues downtown will go anywhere unless police develop a personal relationship with merchants.
“We’re obviously very, very concerned about the state of our city. You know a lot of the people who are talking have been here for decades,” Potter said. “We’re trying to say to you we want to have that relationship.”