Focus, Economic Development, and Travel & Tourism

On-street concierge service gets second year

Downtown’s safety ambassadors generated more than 250,000 contacts during inaugural run.

November 14, 2014
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Safety ambassadors do more than look out for the welfare of visitors to downtown. They often are asked for entertainment suggestions, such as the swing dancing events that take place in Rosa Parks Circle. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

The $300,000 on-street concierge program that launched last year in Grand Rapids is here to stay.

The Safety Ambassador Program, which is focused on providing safety, a clean downtown, hospitality and outreach services to downtown improvement districts across the country, came to the city via Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. It celebrated its one-year anniversary in September and, so far, reports from DGRI, the Grand Rapids Police Department, several of the Heartside neighborhood service organizations and businesses downtown have been positive.

“We get absolutely rave responses from the community,” said Kris Larson, DGRI president and CEO. “Everything we are hearing from partners — even ones who, when we originally launched the program, were a little skeptical — have come around and they really appreciate the service we provide.”

Tami VandenBerg, owner of The Pyramid Scheme, said she is optimistic about the ambassador program.

“We have seen ambassadors help out with securing cabs for those seeking rides, and I've seen some positive interactions between ambassadors and all different kinds of folks downtown,” she said.

According to the numbers, in the first year, safety ambassadors made a total of 259,204 contacts.

Larson said that number is on target with DGRI’s original goal for the program, which was to have a quarter of a million interactions within the first year.

Of those contacts, Melvin Eledge, Grand Rapids Safety Ambassador operations manager, said almost 193,000 were hospitality related, 38,000 were outreach contacts, 22,000 were safety contacts, 3,800 were contacts with panhandlers and 1,500 were graffiti removal.

The numbers can be broken down into more specific services performed. For instance, more than half of the safety contacts involved escorting someone from one part of the city to another. Eledge said another 502 were requests for emergency response, such as a call for the police or an ambulance.

Larson said the fact that 70 percent to 80 percent of the contacts were hospitality related is a good sign.

“Three-quarters of what we do is to make downtown feel inviting,” he said. “It’s adding value to the downtown environment and to the public realm.”

“We are designed to be a friendly and welcoming team that patrols the downtown area and really for the benefit of anyone who is downtown,” Eledge explained.

“We are like an on-street concierge service for the city. You come to downtown Grand Rapids and you basically have a concierge while you are walking around. We can tell you about restaurants, events. We can walk you there; we can give you maps and directions and information.”

While the primary goal is to help people find where they are going or to make a friendly suggestion on how to spend a couple of hours downtown, another key service of the ambassadors has been to form a connection to the homeless or at-risk population — a pleasant surprise to local service organizations.

“I couldn’t speak highly enough on it,” said Marge Palmerlee, executive director at Degage Ministries. “I think they have connected so well with people on the street and they are well respected by agency people and the people in the neighborhood. I think they go out of their way to be compassionate and they are excellent listeners.”

Jenn Schaub, neighborhood revitalization specialist at Dwelling Place, agreed.

“We’ve heard a lot of really positive feedback from social services organizations,” she said. “The Safety Ambassador Program staff has been participating in neighborhood trainings around topics that directly affect the population they are working with.”

Palmerlee and Schaub pointed to relationship building as one of the things that is really gaining the program a lot of respect.

“When you see Safety Ambassador Bill in action, he really is developing relationships with people in the neighborhood,” Schaub said. “He has conversations daily with people in a more robust way than most of our social service providers are actually able to do.”

The safety ambassador’s job, when it comes to outreach, is to try and find out what a person’s needs might be and help connect them with an organization downtown that can help.

“Why are they sleeping outside? What are they panhandling for?” Eledge asked. “We don’t pretend to be or have any desire to be social workers, but we are boots on the ground in terms of finding these people where they are at and being able to be the first smiling and friendly face who is, in a non-judgmental way, reaching out a hand to say, ‘How can we help you?’”

Those relationships can be beneficial in creating a dialogue between someone who is spending his or her day hanging out on a patch of sidewalk and a business owner who doesn’t appreciate that lingering presence outside of his or her establishment.

Schaub said sometimes it’s as simple as being able to ask someone in a respectful way to simply move down a few feet on the sidewalk so there is better access to a business’s entry way, which creates a more approachable environment for everyone.

By learning people’s names and introducing community members to one another, a greater sense of understanding and empathy can sometimes be derived, leading to better exchanges in the future, and the safety ambassadors seem to be doing that.

The safety ambassadors also are helping to find solutions to some issues that crop up: for instance, complaints about public urination.

“They’ve helped to launch a couple of smaller experimental things in the neighborhood, like putting a port-a-potty into one of the spots owned by Heartside Ministries as a way to alleviate some of the public urination,” Schaub said. “That was an idea generated from the Safety Ambassador Program, and we will see how it works. It’s in place currently.”

As far as creating a greater sense of safety downtown, GRPD Capt. Dan Savage said he thinks the program is helping.

“They’ve been a good addition to the downtown area,” Savage said.

Safety ambassadors have served as witnesses many times in the past year, which is a benefit to police responding to calls.

“Any time we can get individuals willing to call the police when they see something that is suspicious or outright wrong taking place, I’m all for that,” Savage said. “The safety ambassadors do a good job communicating their observations to the police department.

“I’ve been impressed with the quality of the people they’ve got working in the program. Melvin (Eledge), the program director — I have good dialogue with him. He points things out to me, even if he sees a trend of something happening. I just appreciate the communication and the dialogue the safety ambassadors have with our agency.”

Savage said he has not seen a decrease in calls for service, however.

“Maybe some of those minor complaints of business members or other community members that have historically called the police, maybe they are contacting the safety ambassadors to address some to those, but I haven’ seen a downward trend in calls for service,” he said.

With the first year’s numbers as a guide, the program now will look at creating goals for its second year.

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