In downtown Edmonton, Rogers Place marks dividing line between 'different worlds'

Rogers Place has been open for more than a year. There are more police officers on the downtown beat than ever before. Some types of crimes have gone up dramatically, while others have decreased. CBC News spent an evening last week on the front lines with beat officers.

Some say a "great divide" has come to exist in downtown Edmonton since Rogers Place opened

The Jasper Avenue police team loads an intoxicated man into a police vehicle to transport him to the Hope Mission, north of Rogers Place. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Around 10 p.m. on a recent autumn evening, an obviously intoxicated man stumbled along 109th Street, then sat on a ledge outside Hudsons Canada's Pub.

Three police officers on the Jasper Avenue beat team instantly approached the man.

"What are you doing over here?" Const. Marty Franco asked. "You can't be round here. You know that. You're drunk."

The man mumbled that he was looking for the Hope Mission.

Franco told him he was going in the wrong direction, and called for a police van to transport the man north of Rogers Place.

"That's a prime example of some of the clientele that we get that venture over here," Franco said. "That gentleman was absolutely and completely intoxicated. So he doesn't belong over here with these good people, walking around intoxicated.

"We know he's not going to be over here for at least a few hours. So we put a Band-Aid on that situation, for right now."
Thousands of people stream onto streets of downtown Edmonton after a recent concert at Rogers Place. (Trevor Wilson/CBC News )

When two downtowns collide

That brief exchange, which happened four days before the now infamous U-Haul truck attacks, highlights what some have called "the great divide" that has come to exist in downtown Edmonton since Rogers Place arena opened a year ago.

On one side of the divide, on this particular Wednesday evening, happy concert-goers streamed into the arena for a Coldplay concert. The weather was warm, so hundreds more walked the well-lit downtown streets or sat with friends on restaurant patios.

Across the divide, north of the arena, where the streets are less well-lit, Betty-Joe Boysis sat in the alley behind the Boyle Street Drop-In Centre, literally with her back against the wall.
Betty-Joe Boysis spoke to CBC News in an alley behind the Boyle Street Drop-In Centre, where she often sits with her back against the wall so no one can surprise her from behind. (CBC)

That way, she could see everything going on. No one could surprise her from behind.

Another woman sat beside her. Because they feel safer that way.

"It's gotten more dangerous," Boysis said about her side of divide. "We come here because we watch over each other. We stay together as a group, or two people, and then we have men that just stand here and they watch to make sure we're OK.

"It's a different world. It's a totally different world here, you know."

CBC News saw both worlds last Wednesday evening during a walk-along with a three-person downtown beat team.

South of the arena, along 104th Street, Darrel Roy was just about to jump into his vehicle.
Behind the Boyle Street Drop-In Centre, acting Sgt. Nicole Davie speaks to an intoxicated man who told police he had just been released from jail that morning. (Trevor Wilson/CBC News )

"You can go out downtown, one o'clock on an evening night, and you feel safe," he said. "Everyone's just out to walk around and enjoy downtown."

Roy moved downtown five years ago, after owning a house in St. Albert for 10 years. 

"I've experienced less crime in Oliver Square than I did in St. Albert," he said. "And I think it's all a little bit about your mindset. It's been a great place to live."

Rogers Place, the dividing line

Rogers Place opened in September 2016. The new arena has had an impact on downtown Edmonton in many ways, including policing and crime.

Last year, police doubled the number of downtown beat officers from 33 to 66 to prepare for the opening. 

Acting Sgt. Nicole Davie, who leads the downtown beat team, thinks the added police presence is making a difference.

"We do proactive policing, right?" she said. "So we ride around on bikes and see these things first-hand, whereas patrol is a bit more reactive.

"I hope all our hard work is paying off."

A comparison of downtown crime statistics for the year before Rogers Place opened and the year after show some crimes have increased, including vehicle thefts and break and enters.

Assaults have gone up by seven per cent, according to statistics taken from the Edmonton police website.

Davie attributed the increase, in part, to the added police presence.

"I think being out here, we're going to see more things, so we generate a lot of calls as officers," she said. "If we see assault in progress, or we see a theft, or we see intoxicated in a public place, we create a call for that and a statistic is created."

But there have also been dramatic decreases in robberies and sex assaults.

The declines could be due, in part, to the increased number of people who live downtown and those who head there in the evenings and weekends.

Renee Poirer lives and works downtown. The business owner said she feels safer now than she did a year ago.

"I definitely feel safer," she said, while taking a smoke break with her friends on a 104th Street sidewalk. "Because there's more people. There's more eyes. There's more people that are randomly going to protect you, versus attack you."

Jacob Loake, who was standing outside a bar on 109th Street, agreed.

"I feel like it has gotten a lot better since the arena opened up, quite honestly," he said. "Because with all of the new stuff going up, it's kind of like helping the area out a lot. It's still not great yet, but it's getting better, I would say."

Loake has lived in downtown Edmonton for the past 20 years. He hasn't been immune from crime.

"In the condo we have near Jasper Avenue, someone had broken into it and stole my brother's motor scooter just straight out of the parking lot," he said.

North of the arena, in that same alley behind the Boyle Street Co-op, CBC spoke to Brent Koe, who was born and raised in the inner city, and has also been the victim of crime.

"I've been stabbed," he said. "I've been robbed." Then he added, nonchalantly, "It happens."


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston was an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father.