Downtown biz owner: People going to the bathroom, shooting up next to my store

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Karen Watkins, who co-wrote a petition to have the SOS Recovery Center moved due to increased drug use in the neighborhood, speaks during Tuesday's City Council workshop. It should be noted that Watkins said SOS was not to blame. (City video image)

ROCHESTER - It may not be due to a downtown recovery center and it may not be due to a downtown church, but one thing no one refuted Tuesday night during the public comment section of a City Council workshop is that the downtown in the past six months has become an increasingly unsavory, even dangerous place.

Much of the focus of the public comment section - during which citizens may address City Council but not ask questions - was expected to concentrate on a recent petition signed by many downtown residents and business owners seeking the relocation of SOS Recovery Center, which is housed in the First Congregational Church on South Main Street.

But instead the most dominant conversation threads that emerged during 90 minutes of public comment were twofold.

One was that the SOS Recovery Center was doing some good things, and shouldn't necessarily be a target of people's ridicule over the current situation

Two, that the downtown has in the past several months become a bit of a mecca for brazen daytime drug use, prostitution and aggressive panhandling.

To drive home the fact, one downtown businesswoman told the council that behind her business she had people "living in trees."

"I find needles every day, a case of beer (behind my store)," said the woman who identified herself only as Kristin. "They're going to the bathroom outside my store. I find pillows, blankets."

She went on to praise police, who she said on a "daily basis chase them out of my trees." She said most of the time it's a two-officer call.

She also said there's a lot of drug activity in her back parking lot, "the same drug dealers and they are always there with lots of activity" and "they always have backpacks and they head right for the church."

Another business owner, Shawn Hooper, said the city needs a heavier presence downtown, maybe a second or even third officer downtown all the time.

"I know it will cost taxpayers money," he said, but reasoned it might help fill some of the vacant buildings because people would feel safe.

Another resident, Andrew Nanatin of South Main Street, said he saw prostitutes and drug addicts hanging out on street corners and had been accosted by panhandlers to the point where "they are in your face."

Nanatin said what the city is seeing now is the consequence of "making it comfortable for people to be here who have a problem who don't seek help."

The dangerousness of the downtown was punctuated last month with the fatal shooting of Billy Jo Ahearn near the Friendly's parking lot on South Main. Six weeks after her death there are still no arrests or suspects in the case, however the lead prosecutor said on Monday there is "progress being made."

Meanwhile, several people spoke up passionately in favor of SOS, most of them recovering addicts who now serve as peer coaches for others seeking recovery.

In addition, First Congregational Church officials, including its moderator and secretary denied church involvement in the problem.

"If people are sleeping there at night, it's not by our permission," said Moderator Dan Harkinson, who added the church has no control over what some "miscreant" is doing at night when no church officials are there.

At the conclusion of the emotional public comment section, Rochester Mayor Caroline McCarley let the audience know that City Council was listening to their concerns.

"We all learned some things and heard some things," she said. "Everyone here cares about this community; nothing happens overnight, but we took notes."

Coincidentally, following the comment period, SOS Director John Burns was next on the agenda seeking additional funding for the recovery center following the recent closure of the Frisbie Memorial Hospital-funded Rochester Community Recovery Center behind Rochester District Court at Wyandotte Falls.

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