Harrisonburg business owner encouraged by conversation over downtown concerns

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — The owner of two businesses in downtown Harrisonburg expressed that he was encouraged over recent discussions with officials over an issue brought to the attention of city leaders publicly.

"I think it's a matter of everyone being concerned, so we're all on the same team on this," Jeff Hill, the managing partner and owner of Joshua Wilton House and Local Chop & Grill House, said.

City Council heard from a couple of people with interests in downtown during its meeting on Tuesday night about a small group of individuals who were accused of causing a ruckus.

"They might panhandle at times, and that might be how they support themselves, but the issue isn't the panhandling. The issue is the crime going along with them," said Tim Brady, the owner of Pale Fire Brewing.

The behavior has sparked concern over the reputation of the downtown district.

"Loud, vulgar language in the library area or littering or — just things that are really not consistent with our environment downtown," Hill said on Wednesday. "We don't want the false impression that downtown is not safe. It is safe and we've done a lot, the merchants, HDR [...] to build downtown Harrisonburg as a destination and you don't want to see that diminished in any sort of way."

Tuesday was not the first time city leaders were confronted with the concerns. A recent meeting brought together business owners to discuss the issue.

The meeting came on the heels of a dog found dead in Denton Park and complaints from business owners in the city.

Chief of Police Eric English said he was headed out of town on Wednesday afternoon and not available for an interview, but sent the following statement to WHSV:

"First let me state that Downtown Harrisonburg is a very safe place. While I understand their concerns, the fear of coming downtown should not be one. We have a dedicated bike officer to the downtown area along with our district officers. I want to ensure we provide a presence in the downtown area, but also I don’t want to over police the area wherein in[sic] creates the perception that downtown is unsafe when we know that is not the case. We will enforce the negative behaviors that arise from individuals in the downtown area as we would any other location in the city. We will continue to work with the business owners and residents in this area as well as with parks and rec to provide an effective presence in the downtown area.

Our Community Place Director of Development and Administration Eric Olson-Getty said in past city meetings that he believes the city needs a shelter that accepts all homeless people and has resources provided. He understands the business owners' concerns but says making arrests won't make a difference.

"They might go to jail for the night, they won't be able to pay all those fines and they're just going to end up back on the street again," Olson-Getty said.