Dover businesses look to solve nuisance woes downtown

Dover City Councilmen Ralph Taylor (left) and Roy Sudler Jr. were at a Town Hall Meeting at Dover’s City Hall on Thursday night trying to develop an action plan to rid the city of nuisance crimes that have plagued the downtown area. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

DOVER — Brandon Pelton said it is long past the time to talk about nuisance problems such as aggressive panhandling by homeless individuals and other serious issues that plague the heart of downtown Dover — it’s time for action and results.

It’s gotten so bad that Mr. Pelton, owner of 33 West Ale House and Grill on Loockerman Street, informed the many attendees at a Town Hall meeting at Dover’s City Hall on Thursday night that he is “seriously considering closing up his restaurant and looking for a new location.”

He wasn’t alone in his feelings.

Tom Smith, owner of the Delaware Store on State Street, also said the issue of feeling unsafe when walking and shopping downtown has reached “a crisis level where downtown business owners are losing the battle.”

Dover City Councilman Roy Sudler Jr. said he has witnessed several nuisance crimes himself downtown and that’s why he decided to host the Town Hall meeting in an effort to find solutions to the problems — which he listed as aggressive panhandling, loitering, issues with the late night bar crowd when dispersing establishments and individuals who loiter in front of the Driftwood Spirits liquor store at 153 S. Bradford St.

“This is an action meeting,” Councilman Sudler said. “It’s time for action, not for more discussion. We have shown that we can be productive and get things done, but the power comes from the people, from all of you.”

Several business owners spoke at the meeting and painted a dire picture of the activities that are taking place every day downtown — including public urination and defecation, sexual activity behind businesses, homeless people sleeping in dumpsters, graffiti in alleyways and, the biggest complaint, aggressive panhandling by homeless individuals.

Tina Bradbury, operations manager for the Downtown Dover Partnership, said she will be working with Dover city councilmen as well as with Rep. Sean Lynn and Sen. Trey Paradee in finding solutions.

“Lately it feels like we take four steps forward and then we’re knocked back 10,” Ms. Bradbury said. “Many of these issues are aggressive nuisance issues that can obviously be handled with the implementation of some ordinances.

“I invite everybody in this room to step up to the challenge with me to take back our city and make it uncomfortable for each person that’s coming out here and taking away my rights and your rights as a citizen here. The ones that are causing these nuisance issues are not being productive members of society. It’s the time to create an action plan.”

Rep. Lynn said panhandling is not a crime as it is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, he did note that “aggressive panhandling is illegal.”

He also said it is time to take a serious look into the issues downtown Dover is facing.

“Perhaps Trey (Paradee) and I, as your state legislators, do an expedited lean and mean, fast-paced task force to kind of start looking at some of these issues on a larger scale,” said Rep. Lynn.

Straight from the businesses

Perhaps nobody can point to the problems that are plaguing downtown Dover more than the business owners themselves.

They lined up one after the other for their two-minute window to speak at Thursday’s Town Hall meeting.

Ashley Robinson, co-owner of The Wedding Boutique on Loockerman Street, said she was recently scared for her life when a man entered her business.

“I grew up here in Dover downtown and I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Ms. Robinson said. “I had a panhandler come into the store and at this time I wasn’t alone, usually I am, but this guy came in very aggressive and could have been drunk and high at the same time.

“Usually I’m not scared of the people that come in, they just want someone to talk to which is fine, but this time I was scared I was going to get robbed and/or shot. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.”

Todd Stonesifer, owner of The Moving Experience on Loockerman Street, said everybody knows where the issues lie.

“We know where the problems are,” he said. “They happen to be on Minor Street alley, and they happen to be right behind my office, because it’s constantly wet and it’s not raining back there. You do the math.

“There’s a liquor store that serves something that’s legal, but the people that take it outside and do illegal things with it are the ones that should be in trouble.”

Diana Welch, owner of both the Grey Fox Grille and Golden Fleece in downtown Dover, said the area better get its act cleaned up fast or suffer the consequences. She mentioned a website called AreaVibes.com that tells outsiders everything they need to know about the city.

“If you go to AreaVibes.com and you type in ‘Dover, Delaware, do I want to live here?’ You would say, ‘No,’” she said. “The reason is we get a big fat ‘F’ on crime and we have for about four years. The reason it concerns me is if you look at that and I was thinking about moving to Dover and I saw ‘F’ on crime, that would be a problem.”

Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen responded to Ms. Welch by saying that a lot of the crimes that get attributed to the city of Dover don’t actually occur within the city limits, as Dover-area ZIP codes can stretch from Magnolia to Woodside to Marydel.

Seeking solutions

Acting Dover Police Chief Tim Stump said the city’s officers could issue ticket after ticket, but chances are it wouldn’t solve the problems downtown. The perpetrators would just return to the streets.

“We have had two-man foot patrols that have been (downtown) over the past three months,” Chief Stump said. “We are over 1,000 additional hours of deregulatory patrol taking place down there. We have issued over 1,100 (direct complaints) in the last three years, the majority of which were in the Loockerman Street area for loitering and panhandling. There has been a lot that is going on.

“We tell our officers that it is not a crime to be poor. It is a crime to be downtown and to harass people in your efforts to gain money and following them to the point that you’re making them uncomfortable. There has to be a threshold that is met. Loockerman Street is a gem and we need to treat it as such.”

City Councilman Ralph Taylor was a long-time officer for the Dover Police Department, and he said that a walking police presence downtown could alleviate many of the issues.

“I do believe a police substation downtown is a necessity. Visibility will deter a lot of the crimes,” Councilman Taylor said. “When Chief Stump and I were on as rookies for the first year we were on foot patrol – and that was the way it was. You had rain, snow, sleet, hail and you were out there. You were doing the things that needed to be done and it helped in several areas.

“One, you knew the merchants and you knew the people who lived downtown. You had a relationship, and a lot of this involves those relationships. A (police) car going by, you can’t build a relationship with that police officer at 25 miles per hour, but that one that is walking, you can.”

More video cameras and better lighting spread across the downtown corridor were also mentioned as things that could improve the situation. Making police aware that a problem that is taking place has also been an issue. Chief Stump noted the police cannot help if they are not informed by the public.

City Council President William “Bill” Hare said he has experienced first-hand being “followed” by an aggressive panhandler as he walked from the Downtown Dover Partnership’s office on Loockerman Street to City Hall. He said he turned around and asked him if there was a problem and the man turned around.

Many others say the “uncomfortable experience” doesn’t always end up like that.

Ms. Bradbury said she will take all the information gathered from business owners and residents at the Town Hall meeting and make recommendations to city council members and state representatives to find solutions.

“From this meeting there will be research that I’ve pulled together from various states that are implementing policies all around the country and different ordinances and best practices that we are likely to evolve,” she said. “It’s obvious that we have a situation that needs to change downtown — and fast.”