British Columbia

How Pokemon Go is transforming downtown Prince George

Online game is helping change attitudes towards downtrodden downtown core

Pokemon Prince George

Pokemon Go places the cartoon monsters in real-world locations. Here, an Eevee appears in Prince George's Canada Games Plaza and a Zubat flies outside Kelly O'Bryan's restaurant. (Andrew Kurjata/Screenshot)

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Business owners in Prince George's downtown core say they are getting an influx of new customers thanks to a popular online game.

Players of Pokemon Go are attracted to the neighbourhood due to its high volume of Pokestops— in-game areas where you can collect new items and earn points— and it's helping change their perception of what Prince George's downtown has to offer.

"Before playing Pokemon, I never liked going downtown, wasn't my favourite place to drive around or spend my time," wrote Courtenay Erickson in a Facebook group devoted to the game. "But ever since Pokemon Go came out, I'm downtown almost every day."

Brett Underwood is another person who is headed downtown more often. The delivery driver says he used to go to the area less than four times a month, but since he started playing Pokemon Go on July 12, he visits daily.

A thousand new customers

Chris Blackier

Chris Blackier estimates Pokemon Go has attracted a thousand new customers to the Black Donkey Cafe in the past week alone. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Erickson and Underwood aren't alone. Chris Blackier runs the Black Donkey Café on Third Avenue and George Street and estimates he's had over a thousand new customers in the last week alone.

"The change in the demographic downtown has been substantially, positively increased," he said. "It has made Prince George young again. It's our city."

"It has made Prince George young again." - Chris Blackier

To capitalize on the change, Blackier has extended his café's hours so it closes at four in the morning, rather than midnight. He also advertises free Wi-Fi and charging stations for cellphones.

"How can we deny our community a safe haven to catch them all?"

Pokemon in historic neighbourhoods

Pokemon Go is played using smart phones and augmented reality.

Pokestop Prince George

The corner of Third Avenue and George Street in downtown Prince George is a popular gathering point for Pokemon Go players due to the high volume of Pokestops (inset) found in the area. (Andrew Kurjata/Pokémon Go screenshot)

Players are encouraged to hunt for cartoon monsters, called Pokemon, in real-world locations. The game uses GPS to sense players' locations and, depending on where they are, reveal new items or Pokemon to collect.

More items tend to be found at Pokestops, which are usually located in public areas such as outdoor murals, monuments or historic buildings. As a result, older and more urban areas, such as downtown Prince George, are popular destinations for players.

Dramatic change

Having players and their families descend on the downtown is a dramatic change for an area that just last month was identified by RCMP as having one of the highest crime-volumes in the city. Statistics reveal police are frequently called to Third Avenue and George Street for public intoxication, drug offences and disturbances.

While it's too early to say if Pokemon players are impacting the crime rates, Vanessa West believes they are having a positive impact on how downtown, and the people who frequent it, are perceived.

Vanessa West

Vanessa West works downtown, and says she's never seen anything have as much impact as Pokemon Go. She is also a fan of the game, and her most prized Pokemon is Eevee. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

West is the Executive Director of Positive Living North. Part of her job involves running the Fire Pit, a downtown drop-in centre for people struggling with addiction, poverty and other issues affecting Indigenous people in the city.

West was surprised when she came to the Fire Pit on a recent evening to discover dozens of people wandering the streets looking for Pokemon.

"Nothing... has revitalized the downtown core like Pokemon Go!" - Vanessa West

"I have attended consultation sessions, mapping sessions and think tanks on how to revitalize the downtown of Prince George," she wrote in a Facebook post. "I have completed surveys and answered questionnaires. But there has been nothing that has revitalized the downtown core like Pokemon Go!"

West says having more people visit the neighbourhood has a positive impact on her clients, as well, by helping show the rest of the city they are nothing to be afraid of.

"It was great to see so many people ... interacting with the people that are down here, and not feeling that fear that I think has been perpetrated for so many years. I mean the people down here are amazing. They're just facing a very hard time and it's great to see people being respectful of each other."

Catching customers

Kelly O'Bryan's

Darryl Colley hopes the mural outside his restaurant won't be painted over. Since it's become a Pokestop, Colley estimates the mural has brought him 50 new customers a day. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

While it's hard to say how long the Pokemon Go phenomena will last, other businesses and organizations in the area are working hard to capitalize on the influx of visitors.

The Prince George Public Library is offering a walking tour of Pokestops with historic value, in order to share the stories behind them. The Exploration Place Museum is offering incentives to anyone who places a lure at their pioneer railway station or school house (lures attract more Pokemon to an area, which in turn attracts more players). Pokemon Go may even help preserve an old mural.

"Someone has made it a Pokestop," Darryl Colley said, standing beside a large painting on the Kelly O'Bryan's restaurant he manages.

The landlord was considering having it painted over, but now that the mural is bringing Colley an estimated 50 new customers a day ...

"Taking it away may not be a great idea, at all."

How Prince George is capitalizing on Pokemon Go

With so many Pokemon players heading downtown, Prince George businesses and community groups are running special promotions and programs to get in on the action. Here are some examples:

To hear downtown business owners talk about how Pokemon Go is affecting them, listen to the audio labelled: How Pokemon Go is transforming downtown Prince George.

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