Bangor police will increase patrols in Pickering Square after downtown business owners complained that public drinking, fighting and drug use is negatively affecting their bottom lines and tarnishing the city’s image as a safe place to live and work.
“As time and staffing allows, we will be increasing our enforcement efforts to disrupt criminal and/or disruptive behaviors in the downtown area,” Bangor Police Sgt. Wade Betters said Monday. “People who commit crimes and/or cause problems at Pickering Square and West Market Square are likely to receive a one-year written no trespass notice.”
Gene Beck, who owns Nocturnem Draft Haus, said he welcomed the increased police presence. The restaurant’s back patio where outdoor seating has increased due to coronavirus restrictions is directly across Broad Street from Pickering Square.
“That sounds like the way it needs to proceed,” he said of the plan to increase patrols.
Beck opened his business nine years ago. He said Monday that during that time, he’s written seven letters to city officials and police outlining the problems in the square. The public drunkenness, drug use and fighting — physical and verbal — have ebbed and flowed during that time, he said Monday.
“When there’s little or no resistance [from officials], it flows,” Beck said. “When there’s resistance, it ebbs.”
John Dobbs, the owner of Paddy Murphy’s, located on the corner of Main and Broad streets for the past 13 years, agreed.
“I’d say it’s a positive step,” he said Tuesday.
Niles Parker has been the executive director of the Maine Discovery Museum for 10 years. Although the museum has not yet reopened, he said that families who visit have expressed safety concerns about parking in the garage and having to walk through the square to get to the museum’s Main Street entrance because of the people who hang out there.
“This has been a persistent problem since I’ve been here,” he said. “The problem is that the city doesn’t seem to know what to do with the space.”
“In recent months, downtown residents, merchants and visitors have expressed concerns about foul language, public intoxication, panhandling, brawls and other less-than-ideal conduct,” the Bangor Daily News reported at the time.
A person violating a no-trespass order in the square could be arrested or issued a summons to appear in court on a Class E crime, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
The increased police presence in the square is not expected to impact the department’s budget this year, according to Betters.
“We will do both covert and highly visible enforcement details in the downtown area,” Betters said. “Some day time and some evening visits as well. This means more officers focused solely on problem areas but we hope to avoid criminal charges all together. Voluntary compliance is the goal.”
City Manager Cathy Conlow said Monday that a planned redesign of Pickering Square will be a reset for the area the way the relocation of a fountain from nearby West Market Square to the waterfront reduced the number of people who loitered in that square and increased pedestrian flow.
Last year, the city was awarded $1.29 million in federal funds to replace the old bus terminal in the Pickering Square parking garage. It was permanently closed last summer for a renovation that changed the location of the garage’s entrance.
Though its hub is in downtown Bangor, the Community Connector bus system has routes that extend to Hampden, Brewer, Veazie, Orono and Old Town. The city set up a temporary shelter in Pickering Square last summer that included a portable restroom and heaters for passengers waiting outside in the cold. All were vandalized so badly they had to be removed, Conlow said Monday.
City councilors voted 5-4 in January to keep the bus hub in Pickering Square and to construct a new terminal. According to a preliminary concept of the terminal, it is expected to be a small building with a bathroom and waiting area that’s staffed by an attendant, as well as an overhanging shelter on the Water Street side of the square.
The decision to keep the bus terminal there was controversial, which has added to the lack of public consensus on how the square should be used, according to Parker.
“It was evident from the series of meetings surrounding moving the bus stop that there are no shortage of ideas about how to use the square but there seems to be no organized community action around how to create city-owned public space downtown and how to program events there.”
The concept design for Pickering Square includes trees, green space and tables for picnicking, according to Conlow. It also would allow outdoor concerts, movies and plays to be performed as they have been in previous years.
Beck, Dobbs and Parker agreed, however, that an increased police presence and a redesign of Pickering Square won’t address the chronic homelessness, substance use disorder or untreated mental health issues that appear to be the root causes of criminal activity and misbehavior downtown.
“The city’s homeless outreach coordinator and caseworkers from private agencies routinely visit, check on and offer services to the homeless who live outside in Bangor,” Betters said. “Many services and offers of help are made and will continue to be made. We are not singling anyone out, just putting an end to people openly violating laws and ordinances as others are trying to enjoy public spaces.”