About 40 business owners and community members gathered on Monday to talk with Aiken Public Safety officials about what they see as a potential problem in the downtown area and what they can do about it.

Cutter Mitchell, owner of Ryan’s Downtown Market and Deli, said he and several other downtown business owners wanted to reach out to Public Safety to “open a dialogue between the two communities.”

“It’s important because we want to make sure downtown Aiken stays as beautiful as it always has,” he said. “Part of that has always been the presence of officers downtown. We really have a great department.”

Members of the news media were not allowed in Monday’s meeting.

Mitchell said afterward that business owners have noticed an increase in panhandlers around downtown.

“It’s not like we’re plagued, but we just want to keep Aiken as it always has been,” he said.

Those in attendance at Monday’s meeting included Aiken City Manager Richard Pearce and Charles Barranco, director of Aiken Public Safety.

Lt. Karl Odenthal gave a presentation to attendees on the laws regarding panhandling and trespass notices, and let business owners know how they can respond to potential problems.

“I looked at this as an opportunity for a dialogue between us and the business community,” he said. “It ended up being a pretty positive meeting.”

Mitchell and Odenthal said it’s important for Public Safety and the downtown business owners to help out each other.

“It’s not like we’re having a crime epidemic. It’s a communication thing,” Mitchell said. “We need to know how to work together. ... We want to make sure tourism stays alive and healthy and we don’t end up having a problem develop.”

Odenthal said Public Safety statistics over a three-month period show that the average number of calls to downtown Aiken was about one every three days. He said a “call” is anytime someone calls Public Safety for anything; a call doesn’t always result in an arrest.

“We’ve shown that we have been effective, but we always want to do better,” he said. “I appreciate the dialogue forum. We dispelled some myths and presented the facts and developed a path forward.”

  Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.