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ODA prepares to relaunch its safety team with new hours, territory

A downtown business group plans to relaunch its safety team this week, with different hours and a different contractor than last year’s version.

Safety team members, called downtown guides, are expected to hit the streets starting Sunday. They will provide a combination of hospitality services — giving visitors directions or recommendations for local businesses — while also being “eyes and ears” for the area, said Todd Cutts, executive director of Olympia Downtown Alliance.

Cutts said the team is meant to complement city services, including the police walking patrol, crisis response team and downtown ambassadors who work during the day.

Last year’s version was staffed by a private security company, Pacific Coast Security, and demonstrations by critics prompted it to pull out. This time, ODA has contracted with GDI Integrated Facility Services, which specializes in cleaning and hospitality, according to its website.

Guides will work afternoons and evenings instead of nights and will cover a larger swath of downtown. When they see someone sleeping in an alcove or otherwise trespassing at a participating business, they will tell them to move.

“I think we can strike a balance between connecting people in need with resources and having a comfortable and safe downtown. In my eyes, it’s not an either-or proposition,” Cutts told The Olympian.

That is what caught the attention of critics, who last year accused ODA and businesses of targeting people sleeping on the streets when shelters were full and legal camping options weren’t available.

A group called Olympia Solidarity Network, or OlySol, sent letters to businesses, in some cases demanding they cancel their contracts with Pacific Coast Security. Crowds demonstrated outside businesses and followed the guards, resulting in the program’s suspension in December.

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OlySol did not immediately respond to request for comment Friday. In a post on its website last month, the group defended its campaign while outlining lessons learned.

Tye Gundel, co-founder of the advocacy group Just Housing that opposed ODA’s safety team last year, said its presence contributed to the growth in unsanctioned camps downtown, with people moving from alcoves to parking lots.

“Depending upon what the differences are in the safety program this time, I think it is reasonable to expect some community backlash,” she said.

Separately, the ODA is in talks about creating a property assessment district to fund downtown revitalization efforts. Depending on the boundaries, it could raise $600,000 to $850,000 a year to pay for things such as the safety team, landscaping and sidewalk cleaning, Cutts said.

Olympia already collects money from downtown businesses to pay for similar work but raises less than what is being proposed. ODA is still gauging interest in the proposal with plans to bring it to the City Council in the fall.

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.
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