By Gene Williams
May 8 -- A family on the Promenade needs help finding the movie theater. A tourist on Second Street can not find the way to his hotel. A merchant on Broadway needs guidance with an aggressive panhandler. A large crack has appeared in the sidewalk on Sixth Street, and graffiti is popping up in the public parking structures. Who’s there to help?
Beginning next month, Downtown’s new ambassador guides will take care of handling these sorts of situations. As Downtown's ambassadors on the street, the guides will cover the district on foot and Segway, scheduled to start June 1, 2009.
The goal of the new program is to provide Downtown users with a friendly resource that will enhance and promote the entire district, Bayside officials said.
“The ambassador program will make a huge impact in Downtown,” said Andrew Thomas, operations manager for the Bayside District Corporation (BDC). “It brings in a hospitality element that currently doesn’t exist.
“It will bring eyes and ears for reporting maintenance issues and enhance safety and comfort Downtown by reporting quality of life concerns,” he said.
|Ambassadors will wear casual but distinctive uniforms
Dressed in casual, colorful uniforms for easy recognition, their primary role will be to help visitors, residents and workers with directions and information about Downtown amenities and attractions – including retail shops, restaurants, public services and special points of interest.
Ambassadors will also escort visitors to their cars and provide other assistance upon request. And they’ll frequently stop in at area businesses while making their rounds to hear what’s on the minds of merchants.
In addition to customer service, ambassadors will help make sure Downtown is kept clean and well maintained. If they see a minor problem – such as a piece of litter on the sidewalk or graffiti that can be easily removed – they’ll take care of it. If there is a larger maintenance issue – such as a damaged news rack or a burned-out street lamp – they’ll report it to the City.
The new ambassadors will also assist police and other local agencies. While ambassadors won’t be law enforcement or public safety officers, they will be trained to report crime and violations of the City’s municipal code. In some instances, ambassadors will make referrals to local social services providers.
TO RUN THE $1 million plus per year program, Bayside board members are set to award a three-year contract to Block By Block, Inc. – a division of Service Management Systems based in Nashville, Tennessee.
An industry leader, Block By Block serves some 31 business districts throughout the country, including New York City, New Orleans, Honolulu and Albuquerque. In Southern California, the company presently runs guide programs at the Sunset Strip, Downtown Pasadena and Downtown Long Beach, among others.
Mary Coburn, operations manager of Downtown Long Beach Associates, is happy with the company’s work.
“We’ve found them to be a really good partner in designing and sustaining our guide program,” Coburn said. “They’re very knowledgeable, they’re accessible.
“When you have a situation that needs a quick response, they’re there to help,” she said. “Block By Block brings in a lot of ‘best practices’ from their various accounts nationwide.”
Downtown Long Beach has had ambassador guides on its streets for decades and has been contracting with Block By Block for the past several years. As Bayside officials planned Santa Monica’s guide program, they visited the neighboring South Bay city and liked what they saw.
“Once you see a program running from the ground up, you can really see the benefits,” Thomas said. “You see the guides helping people on the street, you see them walking into businesses, talking with restaurant managers saying ‘what can I do for you.’
“The benefits of that level of outreach cannot be overstated,” he said.
|While some details of the Santa Monica program have yet to be worked out, it is expected that Block By Block will work with Bayside to hire and train a staff of 20 to 24 full-time ambassadors.
Candidates will be expected to pass a background check and a 10-panel drug test. Ideal candidates will have a friendly personality and experience working with the public.
Those hired will make at least $13.05 per hour – the minimum wage set by the City’s Living Wage Ordinance. As is the case for many similar guide programs across the country, the contractor will employ the ambassadors, while Bayside manages the contractor.
Interviews for the new jobs are being held in early May, and training begins toward the end of May. People interested in becoming guides should email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 310.877.7736.
ONCE THEY HIT the street, ambassadors will circulate throughout the entire Downtown district everyday from about 10 a.m. until half past midnight. About 10 guides will be on the street at any given time.
Altogether, they will put in about 960 hours a week, including 112 hours monitoring the Premier Restroom facility in Parking Structure 4. Schedules will fluctuate to accommodate seasonal demand and special events.
To communicate with each other and their supervisors, the guides will be equipped with hand-held two-way radios. Ambassadors will also carry maps, directory brochures and Downtown-specific literature.
Offices for the new program will be in Parking Structure 3, but that will serve as more of a command post than a front door to the public. Ambassadors will be spending most of their time on the street.
In preparation for the program’s June debut, the contractor will work with Bayside and City agencies this month to train the new guides.
|Subjects will include Downtown retail, restaurants and services, the history and structure of the City of Santa Monica, public relations, customer service, community sensitivity and cultural diversity and how to deal with the homeless and mentally ill.
Ambassadors using Segways will receive training in how to use and maintain their vehicles. The training will also include an orientation from the Santa Monica Police Department and the City Attorney’s Office, which are working closely with BDC to establish this program.
“We welcome the ambassadors,” said Sgt. Rudy Camarena, who is in charge of the police substation on 2nd Street. “It will be a good program to improve the experience for locals and visitors to the Third Street Promenade and the surrounding area.”
THE AMBASSADORS will assist police by reporting crime and code violations, but they will not assume a law enforcement role, Camarena said. When something comes up that needs police attention, the ambassadors will simply “observe it, see if it’s a nuisance or a crime, and report it to us,” he said.
City officials are quick to echo this point.
“Ambassadors do not perform law enforcement duties or function as public safety officers,” said Elaine Polachek, deputy City Manager and Bayside Board member .
However, she added, “they will assist City staff by monitoring the condition of the District, reporting on graffiti, burned out lights or broken glass and interacting directly with residents, visitors and businesses throughout the expanded Downtown area.”
To avoid any confusion about their role, the new ambassadors will wear non-threatening but easily identifiable uniforms bearing the Bayside logo, Downtown officials said.
“There will be nothing ‘security-guard’ about these guys,” Thomas said.
Santa Monica will be following the same model Long Beach officials say has worked so well in their coastal city.
“I think having the additional eyes and ears on the street really deters crime,” Coburn said. “Everything we do really augments and supports the police department. We’re not here to overtake the police role, but to support them.”
Like a number of other major initiatives launched in Downtown Santa Monica, the drive to get the ambassador program off the ground grew out of discussions that led to the recently-formed Downtown assessment district.
“We began going down this road two years ago,” Thomas said. “This was a program that was specifically identified as being essential to the new district.
“Dozens of these programs are in place all over the country,” Thomas said. “Each of them is tailor-made for the district they serve. Ours is hospitality-based.”