WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Downtown businesses own prime real estate for welcoming visitors and locals, but crowds of guests have also become attractive to a different kind of money making enterprise.
"Panhandling is a community issue here. That is for sure, but we are not alone in this fight," said Ellie Craig Marketing Manager with Front Street Brewery. "It is happening across the nation."
WECT's Casey Roman highlighted the ongoing problem of panhandlers in the Wilmington area in her documentary "Fly A Sign," which aired Wednesday night.
For 22 years, Front Street Brewery has been a fixture in downtown Wilmington, and while all are welcome, Front Street has had to keep a close eye on its sidewalk dining area.
"Sure, we have seen them, but it shouldn't stop anyone from living, working and dining in downtown Wilmington," Craig said.
Ed Wolverton is the president of Wilmington Downtown Incorporated (WDI). He often assists downtown business owners with how they can work to curb panhandling on the streets of downtown.
As an urban area, he realizes it's a problem in a small area.
"Downtown is a bit different than being in your car and seeing a person holding a sign," Wolverton said. "In downtown, you meet these people face to face on the sidewalk. It can make people uncomfortable. But if it happens, you should be polite and respectful to them."
According to the City of Wilmington ordinances, it is illegal for a panhandler to walk up to you and ask for money. The ordinance states that panhandlers can be fined $500, and possibly even put in jail.
Wolverton said homelessness downtown is also an issue, but a different one.
"Homelessness and panhandling are not necessarily the same thing," he said. "We do know that we have some folks who are routinely panhandling downtown and those folks do have places to live. This is just a way to make money on the side for other things."
Wilmington is having to constantly reinvent ways to help those in need while enforcing the law against those breaking it.
Ten years ago, the city and the county teamed up with the United Way on a 10-year plan to curb homelessness in the Cape Fear Region. One of the ideas was to install eight refurbished parking meters called Make a Change meters. People downtown can put their change in the meters, then it is distributed to social services agencies to help those who are experiencing poverty.
The only problem is that meters have only generated about $2,000 since 2007.
Terry Espy, owner of Momentum Properties, doesn't consider the panhandlers an issue. She says they're a part of our community and deserve to be treated that way.
"As a downtown business owner at street level, we interface with the homeless quite often and one thing we have found that is to give them personal dignity, learn their name and call them by name and make them feel familiar," Espy said.
Craig and Espy said they feel the new multiple service district (MSD) aims to improve the safety of a 70-block district.
Keeping downtown Wilmington clean and vital is also part of the MSD. An ambassador program also will use citizens to patrol the streets. Being an extra set of eyes and ears for police could be a big help in fighting this ongoing problem.
"The more the entities work together cohesively, the better the outcome," Espy said.
WDI also says it believes panhandlers and those without shelter often congregate downtown because it is near food pantries such as the Salvation Army, Good Shepard Center and Mother Hubbard's Cupboard.