The drive to keep downtown Olympia vibrant and attractive

Ambassador program takes on multiple maintenance roles and helps with homeless outreach

Staff writerJuly 13, 2014 

Olympia Downtown Ambassadors Chelsea Baker, second from right, and Sharon Holley chat with Cafe Love co-owner Joe Hickox and customer Renata Rollins while making their business stops along Fourth Avenue last week.

STEVE BLOOM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Two years ago this month, the Downtown Ambassador program achieved liftoff.

The city of Olympia-funded program was paired with a nonprofit called the Capital Recovery Center — previously known as the Capital Clubhouse — which is a community mental health agency that serves Thurston and Mason counties.

And that paired Rob Richards, who would become the ambassador program manager with Brian Wilson, a city of Olympia employee and the new downtown liaison charged with filling the big shoes left behind by former liaison, Ruthie Snyder.

And then the two got their marching orders and were off to Spokane to learn from a similar downtown program, a program that had inspired Olympia City Councilwoman Jeannine Roe.

“I want it to succeed,” said Roe about the program, “and I’m promoting it as much as I can in the community.”

That was the genesis of the program that today employs seven people who either work as ambassadors or “clean team” members.

The ambassadors walk throughout the downtown core, making themselves available to answer questions from residents and visitors. They also do homeless outreach for those on the streets and check in with downtown business owners about any needs or concerns. The clean team takes on beautification projects, such as responding to businesses that have been tagged with graffiti or cleaning up in other ways.

Richards said they recently tackled the corner at Fourth Avenue and Franklin Street — a corner that has been home to a series of failed businesses — but they cleaned it up and even hung art in the window space.

All of this has to do with helping downtown Olympia, a popular source of discussion for the entire community.

Richards said someone could drive through downtown, notice a few vacancies and then drive home, likely concerned about the area. But he wants them to “take home” the other images of downtown, such as the recently completed cleanup project at Fourth Avenue and Franklin Street.

“I care about it a lot,” said Richards about downtown, praising the area for its culture, people and diversity. He’s also a longtime Olympia resident who chooses to live downtown.

Richards, 36, was born and raised in Portland. He later graduated from Lacey’s River Ridge High School, served in the Navy, attended The Evergreen State College and settled in the area.

Future goals for the program, he said, are to secure health benefits for ambassador employees — they currently work 35 hours a week and earn $10 per hour — and to expand the overall program. They also continue to work on their message, Richards said.

Some think the Downtown Ambassador program serves only the homeless community or serves only the business community. They do both.

“We want that balance,” he said.

DOWNTOWN AMBASSADOR PROGRAM, A PROGRAM OF THE CAPITAL RECOVERY CENTER

Location: 1000 Cherry St. SE Olympia

Organizational history: The ambassador program turned 2 on July 1.

Services: The ambassadors walk throughout downtown Olympia’s core, providing customer service and information to residents and visitors, as well as outreach to the homeless. They also check in with downtown business owners about their needs and concerns, and a separate group, the “clean team,” helps with downtown beautification.

Online: crcoly.org

Hours: The ambassadors work 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Employees: Seven. Two ambassadors, four clean-team members and one team lead.

Funding: The city of Olympia, federal dollars administered by the city and the Parking and Business Improvement Area fund the program. The program’s budget for 2014 is $165,650, up from $50,000 two years ago.

Advice to business owners, nonprofits: “Don’t let the fear of the unknown get in the way of your goals,” said Rob Richards, Downtown Ambassador program manager. “Go for it, do it and try something,” he said. In his role, he’s also learned that it’s important not to generalize about the homeless or business owners. “We have to work together to solve problems,” Richards said. “Don’t let politics get in the way of progress.”

Did you know? The Downtown Ambassador program and Capital Recovery Center are set to present Play at the Well at the Artesian Commons park downtown, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. July 26, Aug. 2 and Aug. 9. Family-friendly activities will be hosted by The Olympia Boys & Girls Club and Together. The Olympia Family theater, Heartsparkle Players and Blue Laces also will perform.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403
rboone@theolympian.com

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