Editorial

‘Safety ambassadors’ are a confusing redundancy, expense

September 20, 2013
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This week Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. becomes the umbrella organization with authority over the Downtown Development Authority, Office of Special Events, Downtown Improvement District and Monroe North Tax Increment Financing Authority, phasing out the Downtown Alliance — the organization that represented property owners paying special assessments within the district.

Operating from a “Framework Plan” provided by a Denver consultant, the details of the organization read like a bureaucrat’s master template, and its initial recommendation to spend $300,000 for “safety ambassadors” in Grand Rapids’ safest neighborhood has left property owners and developers scratching their heads and lends suspicion to DGRI’s launch.

If the headquarters for the state’s second-largest police department located in the center of the city’s downtown does not address the “issue” of the “perception” of safety, one can hardly imagine that “ambassadors” who “are not safety officers” will make such a difference at such a cost.

The Grand Rapids Police Department reports that downtown is the safest and most heavily patrolled neighborhood in the city. The number of officers assigned, especially for special events and bar district patrol, are higher than in any other neighborhood. Business Journal readers also know the officers to be among the most helpful and courteous “ambassadors” the city could hope to have. GRPD leaders also have noted (in terms of safety) the volume of officers coming and going from the downtown headquarters in addition to the assigned patrols.

The uniformed “safety ambassadors” who begin patrols this week will offer downtown visitors information, assist with directions, “report misdeeds” and offer information about social services to those who appear to need such services.

The new DGRI president/CEO, Kristopher Larson, suggested the program, hiring another outside consulting firm to tackle the “task.” Block by Block, a firm that uses a “hospitality-based approach,” provides such services in 65 cities, including Larson’s previous employer Downtown Long Beach (Calif.) Associates.

From the stakeholder’s point of view, it is an expensive example of redundancy, especially considering that Experience Grand Rapids recently announced an “ambassador” training program for all “front line” downtown workers, largely in the service sector. Such programming also has called into question the likely increase in future tax assessments of district property owners.

Downtown Alliance had provided a perfect partnership clearly representing property owners, now represented by a committee. The property owners, in fact, created the entity and asked for the original levy for services that protect and enhance their investments.

More troubling is the fact that the DDA did not have opportunity to read and review the DGRI document — but felt compelled to ratify it.

The consternation does not bode well and may be signs of trouble on the waterfront.

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