Downtown Welcome Center celebrates grand opening in Olympia

The Downtown Welcome Center celebrated its grand opening Friday in the company of several optimistic stakeholders in Olympia.

Located in the Rex Building at Fourth Avenue and Franklin Street, the center will house the Downtown Ambassador Program and also serve as a neighborhood hub.

Program director Rob Richards awoke early Friday morning to help put the finishing touches on the site. Richards also lives downtown and wears his passion for the area on his sleeve. As he thanked supporters at the grand opening, Richards noted that the welcome center’s story is still being written.

“This is going to be great,” he said amid cheers after the ribbon cutting. “Let’s figure out what a welcome center is.”

The welcome center is located in one of downtown Olympia’s most challenging areas, the 300 block of Fourth Avenue, which has a reputation for unruly behavior. The once-vacant storefront has seen a revolving door of tenants over the years, most recently the Paprika Café.

The remodeled space, however, includes plenty of new paint and signs. A mural by local artist Chelsea Baker adorns the entryway and pays homage to downtown’s street grid and attractions.

“This intersection will have a whole new vibe,” said Mary Corso, owner of Courtyard Antiques on Fourth Avenue, during Friday’s opening.

Corso serves on the board of the Parking and Business Improvement Area, a self-taxing district with more than 425 business owners. The PBIA’s money goes toward projects that promote a safe and clean downtown. Other key supporters who made the welcome center possible include the city, the Olympia Downtown Association and the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Each entity has an interest in the health and success of downtown Olympia, and the welcome center is one piece of the overall puzzle for improving downtown conditions.

“It’s a real symbolic partnership,” said Brian Wilson, the city’s downtown liaison and another boots-on-the-ground champion for the area.

Josh Black, PATH program manager at the Capital Recovery Center, specializes in homeless outreach and has become familiar with downtown’s basic needs. He praised the center’s long-term vision as a hub, but also its potential to change negative perceptions in that part of downtown.

“It welcomes everybody,” Black said. “It’s not pushing anybody away.”

Known for their red jackets emblazoned with an “A” logo, the Downtown Ambassadors do more than just clean up litter and graffiti. The program’s employees build relationships, whether through hospitality services for visitors or homeless outreach.

Olympia Police Lt. Aaron Jelcick, who oversees the downtown walking patrol, praised the ambassadors for building a critical rapport with the street community. Those relationships, he said, complement the patrol’s efforts to address safety and nuisance behaviors.

“Some of them won’t talk to us,” Jelcick said, “but they’ll talk to the ambassadors.”