Ambassador Program has proved its worth

Olympia’s Downtown Ambassador Program has had a successful run in the downtown core area since it launched last August.

This year, the City Council agreed to spend $50,000 through the end of 2012 to hire six ambassadors who perform multiple tasks in downtown Olympia, all designed to make the city’s central business district a safer, cleaner place for retailers, downtown visitors and street people alike.

So far, so good. About the only complaint voiced to date is from merchants outside the ambassadors’ coverage area, wishing they were included in the program, noted Rob Richards, the program manager affiliated with Capital Recovery Services, a nonprofit mental health service working in the downtown area.

The ambassadors provide a number of services to downtown visitors. They offer directions to newcomers and answer questions related to downtown. They help people navigate the sometimes confusing parking pay stations that are about to be eliminated after a two-year run. They assist shoppers with bags, clean leaves from clogged storm drains, offer umbrellas to get folks from stores to their cars during downpours and intervene with a gentle touch when problems and nuisance complaints arise on the street.

Since the program began Aug. 1, the ambassadors have removed more than 450 bags of trash from downtown. With any luck, the city’s new recycling bins downtown will help lessen that load.

The ambassadors, many of whom have spent their own hard times on the street, have referred more than two dozen individuals to local housing programs. And they’ve logged more than 2,000 contacts with downtown visitors and business owners. That’s not counting the thousands of greetings and welcoming banter during brief encounters with visitors on sidewalks and street crossings as they make their rounds.

They’ve helped clean up graffiti, broken up drug deals, kept sidewalks passable and reduced aggressive panhandling.

It’s been money well spent by the city. Now comes word that the Parking and Business Area, which is a downtown group formed by the city for projects paid through business assessments in the core area, is providing an additional $4,000 to expand downtown ambassador coverage during the holidays. It will also allow for the hiring of a seventh, seasonal ambassador.

The extra money will increase ambassador coverage to seven days a week, beginning today. Through the end of the year, they will be visible on the streets from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. This is a wise investment by the downtown business community during the holiday shopping season.

In the weeks ahead, the City Council should ensure that the Downtown Ambassador Program is fully funded in the new year. Voters recently approved a slight increase in sales tax collected in the city to fund public safety and crime prevention programs. The downtown ambassadors improve both public safety and prevent crime. When the sales tax revenue is divvied up, they deserve a fair share.

In a perfect world, Olympia wouldn’t need a downtown ambassador program. But this isn’t a perfect world.

The Downtown Ambassadors Program is living up to its promise, making downtown Olympia a more welcoming place. The program deserves continued financial support from the city.