Guest Column

Safety Ambassador program addresses entrenched problems

September 27, 2013
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After reading the Sept. 23 Business Journal editorial, “Safety ambassadors are a confusing redundancy, expense,” I felt compelled to respond to offer a little different perspective on this issue.

Speaking on behalf of Dwelling Place’s interests as a property owner and a DID assessment payer, it seems evident to me that the GRBJ (and perhaps others) might be confused about the intent of the Safety Ambassador program.

As someone who has been very involved in downtown and in the Heartside Neighborhood for nearly 35 years, I can attest to the growing need for creating “alternatives” to solve problems associated with misdemeanor behaviors related to public intoxication and public urination, as well as other nuisance problems associated with panhandling and loitering.

The potential for a “police” solution to these problems is greatly diminished by the major reductions we have seen in the police force in recent years, and by recent court decisions that largely prohibit enforcement of many reasonable ordinances related to panhandling and loitering.

Addressing these and other issues that affect quality of life for everyone (downtown workers, visitors and residents of all incomes) is a complicated conundrum requiring creative ideas that go far beyond the traditional police enforcement actions.

The Safety Ambassador program, as I understand it, is not intended as an auxiliary police department as the editorial seems to imply. It should not be seen as a substitute for police presence any more than the “DID funded” maintenance and beautification program was ever intended to replace normal city services for garbage pick-up and cleaning downtown.

Similar concerns were raised at its inception. I know this because I was there on the founding committee for the DID and served as the first chairperson for the Downtown Alliance Board.

I think innovations such as the Safety Ambassador program provide us with an opportunity to “get creative” and experiment with ideas and approaches to address nuisance problems in proactive ways that are not often possible for a traditional police department.

Yes, it is true that downtown is very safe and perhaps even the safest neighborhood area in the city, but enhancing quality of life for everyone should not stop at claiming the lowest crime rate. It has to be about much more than that, which is really why the DDA, the DID, the Downtown Alliance and now the DGRI were established in the first place!

I have served on the Downtown Alliance Board since its inception and I believe a program like the Safety Ambassador program may well serve the interests of property owners (assessment payers) to address some entrenched problems where solutions have been hard to come by thus far.

If the outcomes are poor, then assessment payers, including this one, will not be supportive of continuing the program. The alternative of doing nothing, on the other hand, is far less attractive.

Dennis Sturtevant is chief executive officer of Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids Inc. He can be reached at dsturtevant@dwellingplacegr.org or (616) 855-0410.

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