Downtown Residents Want 'River Rats' Out

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After months of trying different solutions, they say they must come up with a way to improve the reputation of the area. Store owners and residents say the problems began when the area at West Street Plaza became a popular hangout for young kids and teenagers.

They say on a given weekday after school, fifty or more kids gather there, and on the weekends, even in the hundreds.

"Their nicknames to most of us down here is 'river rats.' They're not wanted, they're not needed, they're not productive. It's not a positive influence for family area," said downtown resident Nancy Gage.

She and Pearl Lapearla live and work downtown. They say the kids who hang out in the West Street Plaza are a nuisance...and need to be driven out.

"We've seen everything from people intoxicated on various things. We've seen people with lewd exposure, we've had stalkers. Someone was just mugged a few weeks ago, right here on the steps in broad daylight," said Lapearla.

The city is aware of the problem, and has made some efforts to solve it, including putting up signs, adding police presence, and even piping classical music through the plaza, to deter kids from hanging out there, an attempt that didn't do much.

"Oh it's annoying, that's more annoying than we are," said Jay Patterson.

He says he hangs out at the Plaza daily, despite the loud classical tunes, and he doesn't understand why people want him and his friends out.

"It's a public park. You can't say we can't come down here, unless you put gates up and charge admission."

Some store owners think more rules, and more police monitoring near the river is the best way to fix the problem. Matt Polley, who owns the Java Jungle Coffee Shop, says opening a drop-in center for kids to hang out, rather than along the river, just might help the situation...along with continued efforts to reinvent the downtown area.

"I think the way to handle it is not necessarily to get rid of them, but bring more people and business down here and it will be that positive element that will get rid of the negative one," said Polley.

Business owners and the police will brainstorm ideas for solving the West Sreet Plaza problems tomorrow, at a public meeting at 2:00 p.m. It's going to be held at the First United Methodist Church at 209 West First Street. That's the old historic church, just across from Java Jungle.