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Downtown businesses eye private security to bolster police presence

The man was camped outside the entrance to her business, and no matter how many times Kim McAbee-Carter asked him to leave, he refused.

McAbee-Carter, who co-owns Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame with her husband, Kyle Carter, tried calling the city of Bakersfield's code enforcement unit. She called Flood Ministries. But nothing seemed to work.

"It's been a difficult two years," she said of the trash, vandalism, trespassing and even human waste she and her husband have contended with, not only at their downtown musical theater, but at their self-storage company in northwest Bakersfield.

"They burned the field all the way up to the fence," she said of Olive Drive Self-Storage, a business the couple decided to sell.

But on Wednesday the Hall of Fame hosted the Downtown Business Association's regular Block-to-Block meeting, and optimism seemed to rule the day at the news conference that followed.

Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer was a featured speaker at the meeting, and although she didn't stay for the news conference that followed, her support of the DBA seemed to buoy the outlook of the governing board members.

"With Cynthia Zimmer joining our group, it gave us a real backbone to go forward with what we're working on in security," said head block captain Dixie Brewer, owner of the downtown consignment store In Your Wildest Dreams.

Brewer's store has been a repeated target of vandals and thieves, but things have been getting better, she said, and Zimmer, it seems, inspired new confidence.

"There truly is a plan in place. She talked about it today. She shared it with us," Brewer said of the district attorney. "She knows, from joining our group, how passionate we are about making Bakersfield a better place, our downtown a safer place."

Reporters were not allowed inside the meeting, but DBA President and CEO Melanie Farmer said after the meeting that Zimmer has committed herself to helping the downtown business district.

"I am very proud to say, very honored and proud to say, that we have our Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer as a block captain for our Block-to-Block program," Farmer said.

The consensus seemed to be that the DBA and its efforts to bring hundreds of business owners together as a united front are beginning to bear fruit.

DBA board member Cassie Bittle, co-owner of KC Steakhouse, said "Block-to-Block started out as kind of an angry mob of business owners."

But the group has evolved and matured over the past two years. And plans are about to turn into action.

"We are working on getting private security for our downtown businesses," Farmer told reporters. "That is something we are getting contracts for right now."

But Farmer said the arrangements are not complete, so no details were forthcoming.

"We understand that the ... police department ... their hands are tied, they're overworked, there's a lot going on, but we do need more help."

Farmer mentioned the recent fire that damaged Buena Vista Museum of Natural History & Science — the second time the museum was damaged by fire over the past seven months.

"We need more security for these businesses," she said. "That's what we're looking into right now."

Jim Wheeler, executive director of Flood Ministries, brings an added level of compassion to the table, as well as Flood's vast experience in working with people living on the street.

"I feel like Flood is in a unique situation where we're able to bridge the gap between downtown businesses on the one hand and people who are experiencing homelessness and who are on the streets on the other hand," Wheeler said.

There was also talk about drafting a city ordinance, modeled on one in Los Angeles County, that would give police and social services more power to remove homeless encampments and prohibit sleeping in public.

Joseph Conroy, a public information officer with the city of Bakersfield, said Municipal Code 9.70.010 already addresses sleeping in public places. It makes it unlawful for any person to camp, or to place a camping facility or shelter on public property, or to sleep outdoors on any public property, including city parks and sidewalks.

"Some federal court decisions, however, have significantly weakened Bakersfield’s — and other municipalities' — ability to strictly enforce such ordinances," Conroy said in an email.

He also cited the city's investment of millions of dollars in homeless outreach services and programs, the creation and ongoing support of the Brundage Lane Navigation Center, funding for expansion and operation of other local homeless shelters — including Kern County’s M Street navigation center — various job programs through local homeless centers, funding and participating in the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative, and $14 million in Public Safety & Vital Services funding for affordable housing projects since 2019.

The DBA board members expressed their appreciation for everything the city has done. But more is needed, they say, and that's why they are taking action as a collaborative.

Brewer said she wants more downtown businesses to join the effort, and she's planning a recruitment drive to make that happen.

And efforts have been ramped up to identify and arrest window-breakers and other vandals shown to be repeat offenders, Brewer said.

In the meantime, McAbee-Carter's Hall of Fame is about to be born again downtown. It's a testament to the fact that her and her husband's dream to create a center for the history and enjoyment of music has not been abandoned.

"We have been closed for a year and a half," she said of the Hall of Fame. "But we will be officially opening Aug. 12."

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.