Get ready for a long and controversial city study session

I get a lot of interesting—sometimes strange—mail, both email and snail mail, and lately much of the correspondence has come from folks who are extremely upset about the state of our fair city. One region in particular.

Last week, for example, I opened an envelope whose only contents was the cover of our most recent Discover Chico guide featuring a gorgeous photo of the tree-lined Esplanade with its backdrop of vibrant yellow and red fall hues. On it, the writer had circled the word jewel—as in Chico is the “jewel of the Sacramento Valley”—and scribbled in big black letters, “This is a joke—Chico is no longer a jewel!”

I’m assuming, of course, that the issues in downtown are what prompted the anonymous letter. I’ve received several emails of the same general tone over the past few months, and one letter-to-the-editor writer this week paints a pretty bleak picture of the area.

Jodi Drysdale (see Letters, page 6) said she doesn’t take her kids downtown very often because she feels the area is unsafe. She recalls witnessing two men shooting up, presumably heroin, in broad daylight in a public space recently. She goes on to describe Chico as an enabling city.

I’ve worked downtown for the past seven years, but I’ve spent time in the region on a near-daily basis since moving here 15 years ago. Unlike Ms. Drysdale, I don’t feel unsafe when walking around. Then again, now that I’m a mom, my after-dark outings in the area are infrequent. Still, even during the day, the atmosphere is noticeably different than just three years ago. I use that as the benchmark because I, too, have noticed some stark changes compared to when I was the CN&R’s news editor and chief city reporter, when I regularly attended the various public meetings, such as the City Council and general-plan-update meetings.

Back then, I would head in and out of the council chambers anywhere between 8 a.m. and midnight, depending on the meeting, and often there would be a person or two hanging out nearby and maybe smoking pot. But never were there straight-up encampments outside of City Hall. Now there are. A lot of the people who set up there with their umbrellas and giant backpacks may split once the temperatures plummet and the rains begin. For now, though, they’re here.

One of the striking things to me is that these aren’t folks I recognize from my many years of being a downtowner. To me at least, they seem like they’re new to town. Like others, I wonder what brought them to Chico. And what keeps them here.

Next week, at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 22, the City Council indirectly will be discussing these folks during a special study session focusing on downtown issues. I suspect a lot of business owners are going to show up to vent about them, and I imagine they will share some pretty eye-opening stories. I just hope it’s a productive exercise that doesn’t devolve into a finger-pointing session. But I have my suspicions.

Melissa Daugherty is editor of the CN&R.