Burlington businesses decry situation downtown, say employees feel unsafe

Pedestrians walk across Church Street in Burlington in May. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger Burlington business leaders are airing frustrations about what they’ve described as a pattern of unsettling incidents this summer and fall in the downtown business district. Now, with the holiday season just around the corner, they’re calling on […]

Pedestrians walk across Church Street in Burlington in May. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Burlington business leaders are airing frustrations about what they’ve described as a pattern of unsettling incidents this summer and fall in the downtown business district. Now, with the holiday season just around the corner, they’re calling on city leaders to help protect employees and customers.

Mayor Miro Weinberger acknowledged the businesses’ concerns and pledged support for initiatives to address them as he met with business leaders Friday afternoon.

“I am concerned we are struggling to sustain the high level of public safety that this community has long enjoyed,” Weinberger said at the meeting, “and I’m pushing back on that in every way I know how.”  

The city now plans to hire a private security firm to patrol the business district during daytime hours, officials told attendees. The guards would serve as “eyes and ears” who could help business owners handle disorderly conduct. 

The move would be similar to steps the city has already taken to prevent illegal activity in City Hall Park. Weinberger said that initiative has had mixed success so far, but should become more effective in the coming weeks, since the city will authorize security guards to issue trespassing citations to unruly visitors of the park. 

For now, though, the private guards can’t issue trespass citations in “public right-of-way” zones such as the Church Street Marketplace, Weinberger said. 

Jeff Nick, who owns J.L. Davis Realty and chairs the Church Street Marketplace Commission, told Weinberger that the right-of-way rule has been a thorn in the side of businesses that see the same people repeatedly causing problems.

Jed Davis, who owns multiple restaurants downtown under the Farmhouse Group banner, agreed.

“We have men on Church Street who are preying on female employees every day,” Davis said at the meeting.

At multiple points throughout the hour-plus Zoom call, Weinberger urged business owners to contact their city councilors and voice their support for his plan to raise the number of sworn police officers on Burlington’s force to between 77 and 80, with eight more officers stationed at Burlington International Airport.

The plan, which Weinberger said he intends to present at Monday’s City Council meeting, comes from a recent report commissioned by the city and made public this month. City councilors voted last year to cut the force’s size by 30% through attrition and to put the savings into efforts to reduce the demand for police services, mainly through a variety of social services.

Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association, said some business owners will likely ask councilors to approve the mayor’s plan. But many don’t want to face backlash that she says could come from publicly supporting a plan to hire more police.

The association had previously organized a program using private donations to provide safety escorts for retail and restaurant employees as they departed their nighttime shifts, Devine said. That program was paused recently for lack of money. 

While Devine said she’s glad the mayor is establishing the daytime patrol, businesses don’t see it as sufficient to keep staff and patrons safe.

“Something needs to happen, and it needs to happen quickly,” she said. “People are afraid of working downtown.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to more precisely describe Mayor Miro Weinberger’s proposed police staffing target.

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Burlington businesses decry situation downtown, say employees feel unsafe

Dong Anker

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