While 7-Eleven has given up on doing business in downtown Prince George and has closed two of its convenience stores due to problems associated with vagrants whose shoplifting, drug-using habits and aggressive behaviour threatened the security of staff and customers, one local businessman believes he’s found a formula for fighting crime that works for his store properties in the VLA.
Cam Thun owns the building on Strathcona Avenue, which he leases to Grocery Express convenience/grocery store, part of a neighbourhood shopping centre that includes the First Litre Party Shack pub, First Litre Cold Beer Store and Cosmic Cannabis, all of which Thun owns.
The back side of each of those businesses is surrounded by steel fencing topped with barbed wire. The buildings are monitored continuously with a security system. Thun also installed video cameras and an external speaker that allows staff to speak to anybody loitering close to any of the stores and warn them they have to leave or the police will be called. His liquor store has a switch-operated rat-trap security enclosure between two doors that allows the person working at the till to lock in a shoplifter or robber until police arrive.
“I play opera music around my building,” said Thun. “I keep my place well-lit, and any graffiti is tackled the next morning. So some guy will write something in the middle of the night and he will come back the next morning to show his friends and it’s already gone. I clean it up immediately because I have to show them that’s what’s going to happen and that’s the message I get through.
“There’s a lot of nice people that live down there and are in that area but the ones we do not want, I make it clear to them they should not be there. They just want to be left alone so they can do their dope. They’re not shopping, they’re hanging around hoping to run into their buddies to do illicit drugs, and I make it clear I want none of that around my property.”
This morning, 7-Eleven permanently closed its gas bar/convenience store at 1588 20th Ave., six months after it shut down a convenience store at 1720 Queensway. Another grocery store located across the street from the 7-Eleven – Convenience on 20th – closed down in September, less than a year after it opened.
Thun said he expects there will be a corresponding spike in business at the grocery store, which is only three blocks south of the closed 20th Avenue food stores. With fewer options for people who live in the area and don’t have vehicles to go to other stores, which will almost certainly attract the street crowd which tends to hang around stores.
“The convenience store next to First Litre is technically the only one in the area and I’m already well-versed in dealing with that element, and that element knows how I behave,” Thun said.
“At the 7-Eleven, you can’t expect the manager, at whatever they are making an hour, to be going outside and challenging six, seven or eight people. That would be ridiculous. 7-Eleven is run by (a corporate office in Surrey), where at my place I’m there, and they fully understand the lengths I’ll go to to keep my place perfect.”
Thun set up a wireless alarm that backs up his hard-wired phone line to connect his property to a security monitoring service. When an intruder trips one of the sensors at any of his establishments in the shopping centre, if the wired phone line is cut, that will trigger a cell phone uplink system to send an alert to the security company. Several months ago, Thun was awakened at his home at 3 a.m. by a phone call from the security company to tell him the cell-phone system had been activated.
When he got to the store he found the culprits had hooked a chain around the metal pole at the back of the building which connects to a phone pole and had ripped it off the wall using a vehicle to pull on the chain. The door of the pub was also yanked off its hinges and lay on the ground after the thieves drilled two holes through it to attach the chain. Nothing was stolen and he likely scared off the would-be thieves when he arrived at the store, but he said six other downtown businesses were broken into that night.
Pratyush Shah opened Convenience on 20th on Nov. 14, 2021 and after months of dealing with people who had no respect for his property, staff or the law, he pulled the plug.
“It was a bad atmosphere, bad people, I’d say criminals, harassing us,” said Shah. “You can’t deal with them. They were taking drugs outside my store and whatnot. Six times they broke my glass in not even a year, and it’s so expensive.
“Those people, I don’t know what I can say. They would take the stuff right in front of you and you couldn’t say anything, they just walk away. They just figured they were the owner.”
He also operates the Shah Brothers convenience store on Westwood Drive, which specializes in East Indian food, and he plans to focus on that store before he’ll consider a different location for a second convenience store.
“We don’t have problems there,” Shah said. “I hope that area can stay safe.”
Thun is worried about what will happen to the people who live near the downtown core when Save-On Foods moves out of its Parkwood Mall location for a new store being built at Pine Centre Mall. For those who have to walk or ride bikes to get their groceries that will leave a huge void unless another grocery operator takes over the Parkwood location.
“That’s an anchor, they can’t take it anymore, and they’re out of there,” Thun said.
Thun says the BC Housing project which opened in June at 808 First Avenue to provide safe and affordable supportive housing for 50 people is helping to deal with the problems associated with street people. The government corporation also bought the National Hotel at 1201 First Ave. and has converted it to provide 27 additional rooms for homeless people. But Thun says much more is needed to fix the problems that plague the downtown core.
“I think they are starting to tackle the issue with the development on First Avenue,” said Thun. “What happens with the city is there’s always displacement. The downtown businesses, and my heart goes out to them, will say you’ve got to deal with this problem. So the city sends in the bylaw enforcement officers with the police and they get them out of there, but they just move them to another corner.
“All of the services downtown, like the needle exchange and the pawn shops, maybe they should move everybody to the end of First Avenue. Put everything they need to survive in one area with housing and look after them.”