The director of the Downtown Ambassador Program has been fired from the program he helped build.
Rob Richards said his dismissal Tuesday came as a surprise, just days after the grand opening of the new Downtown Welcome Center in a once-vacant storefront at Fourth Avenue and Franklin Street.
The ambassador program is part of the Capital Recovery Center, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the city of Olympia to provide the ambassadors. Launched as a pilot project in 2012, the ambassadors have focused on outreach with the homeless, business owners and visitors in addition to cleaning up litter and graffiti.
Ann Rider, executive director of the Capital Recovery Center, said labor laws prevented her from discussing the details of Richards’ departure. Rider confirmed that ambassador Sharon Holley will temporarily serve as program director during an open recruiting process to fill the position.
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In a statement released Friday, Richards said he was told the firing stemmed from “outside pressure” and that “they want to take the program away and hire security guards.” Richards also said he and Rider “parted ways amicably,” and he plans to continue working on downtown issues.
“The past three years in this program have been the best of my life,” he wrote. “Being given the opportunity to serve downtown and its residents, visitors, shoppers and businesses has taught me more than I ever imagined.”
Rider said she will meet with city officials and business owners in the coming weeks to discuss a vision for the ambassador program as well as the Downtown Welcome Center. The latter is a partnership with the city, the Parking Business and Improvement Area (PBIA), the Olympia Downtown Association, and the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitor and Convention Bureau.
The center officially opened April 24, four days before Richards was fired.
“We give (Richards) a huge amount of credit for getting the welcome center open,” Rider told The Olympian, but said the center needs to better reflect and acknowledge the participation of its stakeholders. “One of the things we’d like to do is make sure we get their logos up and make it clear this is a partnership with them.”
The program’s operating budget is just under $200,000, according to Brian Wilson, the city’s downtown liaison. The city contributes about $110,000 along with $51,270 in Community Development Block Grants.
Another $33,500 comes from the PBIA, a self-taxing district comprised of more than 425 downtown business owners. The PBIA funds projects that promote safety and cleanliness downtown. In a 2014 survey of PBIA members, more than 70 percent of respondents support funding the ambassador program.
Olympia City Councilwoman Cheryl Selby, who is running for mayor, said the program has made a notable difference downtown, but needs more financial oversight and accountability as long as public money is involved.
“With any money the city puts toward a program, there needs to be accountability,” she said. “I’m not the only person asking questions about how the money was being spent.”
Selby said she would like to see a more “professionalized” approach to the ambassador program that includes stronger coordination with outreach workers as well as a new logo, preferably one that doesn’t resemble the symbol for anarchy.
“It’s a young program, so this is a good opportunity to re-engage around the program,” she said.
As for the welcome center and its potential as a neighborhood hub, collaboration is critical if the community wants it to stay open, Selby said.
“The other partners do need to step up and engage that space,” she said, “or it’s not going to last.”
Councilwoman Jeannine Roe said the direction of the ambassador program and the Downtown Welcome Center — including proposals for a long-term funding plan — are tentatively slated for discussion at the next General Government Committee meeting May 20. Roe said she had initially pitched the idea for an ambassador program based on Spokane’s model, and is proud of the local program’s growth in the past few years.
“Rob has been with it from the get-go, and has been a strong advocate for the program,” said Roe, who would like to see it expanded, especially the Clean Team. “The community likes it, the downtown merchants love it, and I’m very confident it will have a strong continuation.”