Downtown Welcome Center awaits grand opening at once-vacant storefront

The Downtown Ambassadors Program is leading an effort to establish a welcome center and de facto neighborhood hub in downtown Olympia.

The new Downtown Welcome Center will host a grand opening celebration April 24 at the corner of Franklin Street and Fourth Avenue, site of the former Paprika Café.

In the meantime, the ambassadors are remodeling the once-vacant storefront, eager to make their presence known. The program’s employees — known for their red jackets and “A” logo — monitor downtown for litter and graffiti, but also engage with the homeless population and provide hospitality services.

“This is one of the most challenging blocks downtown,” said program director Rob Richards, referring to the 300 block of Fourth Avenue’s reputation for nuisance crimes. “It’s the epicenter where we’re needed the most.”

The center will provide pamphlets and literature for visitors, but also embrace the culture of downtown, Richards said. The remodeled building will include a mural by local artist Chelsea Baker that depicts the street grid and landmarks. One idea is for the center to sell tickets to downtown theater productions — or even provide “theater ambassadors” who escort patrons from shows in the evening when the younger bar crowds are active.

The center is also recruiting volunteers.

“We’re learning what a Downtown Welcome Center is as we go,” Richards said.

Sharon Holley, an ambassador, said the new center will further strengthen the program’s relationship with the downtown community.

“We’re even more visible,” she said, noting that calls to the ambassador hotline regarding the Franklin and Fourth intersection have nearly disappeared since the ambassadors started setting up shop.

The ambassadors had been headquartered at the Capital Recovery Center. With the new location, Holley said it’s easier to connect with downtown neighbors and build relationships with everyone, including the street youth.

“I’m familiar with their stories because I get to know them,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing we do, is just listen to people.”

The center coincides with a number of initiatives aimed at improving the downtown environment. In May, the Olympia Police Department will add a summer night shift to its downtown walking patrol. That same month, an expanded ban of high-alcoholic beverages will take effect as part of an effort to curb litter and public intoxication.

The center will be made possible by a partnership among the ambassadors, the city, the Parking and Business Improvement Area, the Olympia Downtown Association, and the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitor and Convention Bureau. The ambassadors have a one-year lease on the building, with help from a $20,000 storefront partnership grant from the city.