The City of Prince Albert has placed temporary fencing around part of the Margo Fournier Centre after staff members raised safety concerns about large amounts of people gathering near the entrance.
City Manager Jim Toye said sometimes as many as 50 people would on the centre’s east side lawn. It’s been happening on a daily basis over the last few weeks.
He said there’s evidence of drug use in the area, and city staff have discovered people sleeping or urinating outside the facility. He’s worried it’s creating an unsafe environment for city staff. On Wednesday, work crews constructed a fence around the lawn to prevent people from gathering there.
“As a city manager, I just couldn’t see that anymore. I can’t have staff come into work scared because of what their workplace might look like and how they’re going to get into that door without being shouted at or waking someone up,” Toye said during an interview on Wednesday. “It was just getting too difficult.”
“It was being perceived as a place that wasn’t safe to go to,” he added. “So, we made a decision.”
Toye said that some staff were frightened by heckling and other comments they received while entering the building. In some cases, staff were encouraged to work out of City Hall instead of heading to the Margo Fournier Centre. Some members of council also noticed large gatherings and “felt that was going on there was not appropriate,” he added.
That’s not the only concern either. The City currently leases the property to Eagles Nest Youth Ranch for programming as well as other organizations and community groups for recreation pursuits like fitness classes. The building also houses the Kinsmen Community Heritage Senior Centre, although it remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Toye said they’ve worked with the Prince Albert Police Service to keep the area safe, and have spoken to the Saskatchewan Health Authority about providing a container for needles. However, it was clear more needed to be done.
“We’ve tried to do it other ways, but it wasn’t working,” he explained. “Our staff that gets there in the morning would have to walk through people to get in to open the door at 8 a.m. It was just getting too difficult and onerous, so we made the decision to put up a fence and just see what it’s going to be like over the next few days.”
Toye said there’s no doubt a good portion of the individuals gathering in the area are homeless. The City is working with different partners to try and find somewhere for those people to stay, although Toye said they likely won’t have a place until the end of October at the earliest. Until then, they’ll have to gather in other parts of the City.
“With a group of, say, 50 people who are all together like that, that can turn into something bad really quick if there are big numbers like that,” he said. “I think we have to be aware (about) not just the care of city staff, but these individuals, and keeping them right there just was not helping the situation at all.”
This is the only city facility where staff have had these safety concerns. Toye said city staff will sometimes discover homeless residents sleeping near exhausts from furnaces or heaters to keep warm, but situations like this are unusual.
Mayor Greg Dionne declined to comment on the decision, saying it was an administration action that was not taken by council.
Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp said she’s asked for more information about the decision to put up a fence to deter groups of people gathering there. She said the decision was taken without council’s consent, and she’s asked to have the item added to the next executive committee meeting agenda to find out why that was the case.
Lennox-Zepp said she’s also concerned that law-abiding Prince Albert residents are not being allowed to use a public area. She added that she had not received any information about city staff feeling unsafe.
“If we’re having unlawful usage, then we as a City should be dealing with that with the remedies that we have,” she said on Wednesday. “However, … a fence has gone up without the topic coming to city council about the usage of that public space. That is, I think, an important piece that has not come to council in any way, shape or form.”
A Prince Albert police service spokesperson said they did not have specific stats showing how often police respond to calls at the Margo Fournier Centre. She wrote that police patrol the area often as part of their regular neighbourhood strengthening efforts.
The Margo Fournier Centre is a multi-use recreational facility that contains a full-size gym and two multi-purpose rooms. It also houses the Community Services office and the Prince Albert Winter Festival office.
The facility is located at 1211 First Avenue West.