“I really want to be part of making downtown a better place” for people to visit, said Robin Slootmaker, one of the ambassadors and an owner of Don’t Stop Printing on Fourth Avenue.
The ambassadors’ responsibilities include helping direct people to social services, teaching people how to use parking meters, giving directions and cleaning up the city core.
The Olympia City Council approved the $50,000 ambassador program, which will last at least until the end of the year. To administer the program, the council has contracted with Capital Recovery Services, a downtown nonprofit mental health program formerly known as Capital Clubhouse.
Four of the ambassadors are part of what’s called the Clean Team, and they focus on beautifying downtown from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. The other two will serve as liaisons between businesses and people who come downtown, helping address nuisance complaints and aiding people in need of social services. They work from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and noon-7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. One of them doubles on the Clean Team.
“Something like this is exactly what we’ve been talking about, what we need down here,” said Rob Richards, who works for Capital Recovery Center and is in charge of the ambassador program.
The city for years has heard from businesses about so-called nuisance behaviors – chronically drunk people urinating on the sidewalk, alleys full of needles, people blocking sidewalks and aggressive panhandling. The ambassador program is one of the city’s attempts to address the behaviors. It also has attempted to ban high-alcohol, single-serve drinks; is working with bars to prevent overserving patrons; and it is “placemaking” – sprucing up parts of downtown such as the city’s artesian well.
Richards likened the approach of the ambassador program to the broken-windows theory, introduced by James Wilson and George Kelling in a 1982 article of The Atlantic. As the theory goes, a building with broken windows attracts more blight. But if issues such as broken windows are fixed right away, there is less likelihood that more windows will be broken.
Richards said downtown business owners have missed the Olympia Police Department’s walking patrol, which was discontinued in recent years because of budget cuts. Though ambassadors will call police when crimes occur, they can handle nuisance behaviors, such as excessive noise, Richards said. People can be asked to move on.
Wearing hats that say “downtown ambassador,” the six are covering the city from Water Street to Plum Street, Legion Way to State Avenue, said Brian Wilson, downtown liaison to the city and supervisor of the program. Next week, the ambassadors will wear royal blue polo shirts, he said.
Ambassador Garrett Cooper has spent much of the past week meeting downtown business owners and passing out a hotline number for the ambassadors.
“We are meeting the people on the streets,” he said.
The program is modeled after one in Spokane, which City Councilwoman Jeannine Roe visited last year. She brought her experiences back to Olympia.
“I’m just hoping that they truly serve as ambassadors,” Roe said, “helping people feel more comfortable downtown.”