SAULT STE. MARIE — Richard Kim, a Juilliard-schooled dancer, has performed with Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan and Reba McEntire.
He's danced at the Academy Awards, American Music Awards, Soultrain Music Awards, and in national television spots for Mastercard, Levi's 501 and Frito-Lay.
But speaking last week at a Downtown Association meeting about security problems in the block surrounding his Queen Street dance studio, Kim made no attempt to soft-shoe around the issues.
"It's getting to be quite unsafe," Kim said. "It's gotten to the point where we're exasperated and very concerned."
Kim's Studio Dance Arts is in the Woolworth Building in Square One, in the heart of Sault Ste. Marie's commercial district.
He says the serious drug activity there began about five years ago, but has escalated in recent months.
The nearby intersection of Queen and Brock has been problematic, he says, as has the little-known, dead-end laneway at the back of his building, running from Brock Street alongside Dr. Linda Myles' optometry practice.
"That particular corner and laneway area, in the past year or two, has become so bad in the frequency of vandalism and vagrants and druggies hanging out there," Kim told the Downtown Association directors.
"They're doing deals. They're shooting up. They're leaving their needle syringes on the laneway, also up on the roof. Created lots of damage over the years."
"One of my tenants yesterday saw somebody of the roof shooting up four times. And then he urinated on the roof and left before the police were able to get there."
"Today, Dr. Myles' office called me and they saw a dealer making a deal. When they went out to take a picture, he took off on his bike."
"They're all in that laneway, up on the roof, going down the roofs of the buildings all along that area there."
Kim is particularly concerned because his business is frequented by young students, who usually turn up between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays.
Just up the street, he told the downtown board, is Case's Music, which also offers classes to children.
One time, rooftop denizens stuffed beer cans and bottles into the drains on Kim's roof.
"It flooded the entire roof, which seeped out into the dance studio. We had to shut down right just before Christmas, early, because it was flooded."
A couple of years later, his building's heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system was ripped open and had to be replaced.
Kim has been reporting these incidents to his insurance company, but not to police.
He says the frequency of incidents is increasing.
"It's the laneway that's the biggest safety issue right now because of the needles. There's constant needles there. That's our fire exit."
"Our garbage bin that's locked all the time, that's constantly being sledge-hammered or something. They're literally busting the locks, busting holes in that thing, just throwing trash on the laneway."
"We found blow-up dolls in there one time. Random stuff. Sometimes clothes in the trees. Sometimes it looks like they're storing stuff in there as if they're living out of it."
"They busted up the PUC meter, the gas meter back there. We haven't reported it because it was kind of random."
This month, Kim found the metal electrical conduit had been sawed off the back of his building, in what he guessed was a search for resalable copper.
The sawn pipes were left behind, tossed in the laneway.
A number of meetings have been held since Kim spoke last week to the Downtown Association.
The gatherings included representatives of Sault Ste. Marie Fire Services, Future SSM and the Downtown Association, with Paul Scornaienchi from Ergo Office Plus contributing building code expertise.
They discussed beautification and lighting improvements for the back alley, and the possibility of changes to Kim's fire escape.
A Downtown Association crew returned to the alley on Wednesday and did a major clean-up.
"They're brainstorming some ideas on how to deter the negative activity there," Kim tells SooToday.
"I agree with the general consensus that there is a 'bigger picture' problem that is causing some of the activity downtown," he said, referring to persons using substances.
"There needs to be a solution or treatment for that. However, in the meantime, the immediate issue is to ensure the safety and security of the downtown, especially, if the city is trying to revitalize it."
"COVID is a major factor," Kim said. "Businesses being shut down since mid-March made downtown an abandoned area for a bit."
This, he told us, created "a perfect 'playground' scenario for all the negative activity on every block of Queen."
"I've never seen so many of them walking downtown when I used to drive by this summer."
"It never used to be on Square One block, but I noticed recently there's more activity. Seems to move from block to block through the years. They get pushed to another area," Kim said.
"I just want everybody to be aware that we are aware," said Ward 2 Coun. Lisa Vezeau-Allen, a Downtown Association director.
Vezeau-Allen points to the coronavirus, closure of the Neighbourhood Resource Centre and a lack of mental health and addiction resources as contributing factors.
"We are being proactive. For all of us, we know that addiction is an issue. We know that there is a rise in crime of this nature.... But really what we need is a treatment centre," the councillor said.
Paul Scornaienchi and Downtown Association chair Kristi Cistaro both emphasized the need for incidents like Kim's to be reported to city police.
"I for sure would encourage you to do that, no matter how seemingly minor," Cistaro said.
"The most important factor is definitely to call the police service to let them know what's happening. Without that, we're left in the blind and we won't have the stats require to really go against it," Scornaienchi added.
"We have to do something different. I'm recommending that we bring Algoma Public Health into these instances."
Other news from last week's Downtown Association meeting:
- recruiting ads have been placed for a new executive director to replace the departed Josh Ingram. The position will pay between $40,000 and $55,000 depending on experience. The work schedule is described with remarkable candor as: "12-hour shift, eight-hour shift, day shift, Monday to Friday, night shift and weekends." The successful applicant can expect to "spend long hours in intense concentration requiring attention to detail and high levels of accuracy," in addition to minor office cleaning and lifting and hauling associated with downtown events
- it was agreed that Police Chief Hugh Stevenson would be reminded of his recent commitment to send a police representative to the association's monthly meetings. No one from city police attended last week's discussions about security issues
- directors were told that recent improvements to the Paul Mall alley have made it the preferred safe route from Queen Street to Albert/Brock parking, in the opinion of neighbouring businesses