Sharon Holley is the new program manager for the Downtown Welcome Center, but her real office is on the streets of Olympia.
Holley accepted the position earlier this month, nearly a year after she was hired as a downtown ambassador. In her red polo shirt emblazoned with the “A” logo, Holley has become a familiar face downtown, exchanging greetings and friendly waves with people from all walks of life.
She also is seen as a problem solver. Moments after she entered the Artesian Commons on a recent Thursday morning, a member of the street community whispered a complaint in Holley’s ear about the unwanted behavior of another man at the park. She planned to catch up with the man later that day to discuss the incident and help everyone move forward.
“This is my favorite office,” she said, holding out her arms for downtown Olympia.
Located at Fourth Avenue and Franklin Street, the welcome center serves as the headquarters for the Downtown Ambassadors and Clean Team. The program handles everything from litter cleanup and graffiti removal to hospitality services and homeless outreach. Olympia police have praised the ambassadors for building a rapport with the street community to address safety and nuisance behaviors.
Holley, 45, grew up in Olympia and attended The Evergreen State College, where she received a master’s degree in public administration. Her career path has ranged from stints as an aquatic land manager for the state Department of Natural Resources to directing student research projects at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Holley returned home to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics, but those plans were sidelined while Holley tended to family matters. She is optimistic about her new role at the welcome center — and will find other ways to satisfy her interests in astrophysics.
“My priority is running the program,” she said. “The rest I can do with a telescope in my backyard.”
In her new role, Holley said one priority is to shed the ambassador program’s status as a “pilot program” and create a three- to five-year business plan for the welcome center. The program recently received a grant to host an AmeriCorps VISTA student who will work in a variety of roles, and Holley hopes to eventually start a youth job corps that focuses on employing the local street community. In the coming weeks, the center expects to hire another ambassador and a Clean Team member.
Holley sat down with The Olympian last week to chat about the Downtown Welcome Center and her experience as an ambassador. Here are some highlights from that conversation.
Q: Why does Olympia need a Downtown Welcome Center?
A: The folks involved in supporting this program wanted to have a central location where people know that they can come when they’re downtown to find their way around and to have a home base, if you would, for downtown. We hand out a lot of information already in our program. We’re out there showing folks how to get around town. We talk about what’s going on downtown and the businesses downtown. We’re already in the information business as ambassadors, so it’s a natural fit for us to be doing it.
Q: How will your title as program manager change your role as an ambassador?
A: The program manager position has changed a little bit. We’ve added on to it. It’ll involve at least 15 hours on the street. One of the things folks really wanted to see is the program manager being out and about with our clean team crew, with the ambassadors, interacting with the shop owners and interacting with our folks on the street as we pass by, and even with our neighbors who are without a roof. There’s still the administrative side of it, but really, it’s more about feet on the street for the program manager position.
Q: You really work on building relationships with everybody downtown.
A: That’s a big part of it, and the reason why we’re wanting to have the (program manager position) spend a minimum of 15 hours on the street as part of that relationship building. In our program, one of our mission goals is to meet people where they’re at. If I’m just going to a meeting, that’s not always meeting people where they’re at.
There are folks out here in their shops, and we need to be meeting them there. There are people on the street who need to be able to have access to me and the ambassador program. We want to be out there in a way that’s meaningful to people and meeting them where they’re at.
Q: Have you had many people coming to the welcome center, such as tourists or non-residents?
A: We’ve had a lot of people from overseas come through — from Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, France. Lots of people visiting from out of the country. We’ve had about 850 visitors to our center since we’ve opened in April. About 97 percent of those folks have been local people from Lacey, Tumwater and the Tenino area and out of downtown Olympia as well. They’re looking for information and coming back downtown to shop and participate and go to events.
We have a ton of information for folks about what’s going on in our downtown area and the rest of Olympia too. We’ve had a bunch of new residents come through the door just looking for information about where to go, or how the city works, or recycling programs. People really do want to know what’s going on downtown and what’s available in the downtown core.
Q: What’s the most common type of call for service the ambassadors receive?
A: The most common call has been a disturbance call, like somebody’s experiencing a mental health breakdown of some sort, or somebody who seems to be experiencing homelessness and is irate or upset, and they’re outside of a store and they need some help — sort of like, “I don’t think that I should be calling the police for that, I thought I’d call you guys, I know you guys work with folks.”
That’s our most common call. That’s reduced quite a bit in the last six months, although summer is coming and we get more folks coming through. The weather gets hotter and people get affected by that. If you’re suffering from some sort of mental health illness, you get affected by that temperature range, just like the rest of us do. We get cranky, upset and dehydrated, especially if you’re out on the street all day and not drinking enough water. Those are little simple things we can work with people about and help change their day around, if possible.
I think the biggest thing is that we’ve been spending a lot of time on the street engaging in people’s lives in a meaningful way and getting to know their histories and talking to them about their social service needs. We’re trying to get those met for them or empower them to get those met in a meaningful way.
A lot of folks in the community are getting to know their neighbors a little bit more. That’s the overall thing we do as ambassadors anyway, is creating that bridge of communication, saying “Hey, these folks are here every day.” We make human connections with each other. A lot of folks who are shop owners are starting to do that if they haven’t already, and they’re seeing progress with that and they’re wondering how people are doing, so they’re able to engage too.
When I started this job, that’s what I set out as a goal — that everybody can feel like they’re empowered to be an ambassador of downtown.