Two months after removing fountain-side benches in an effort to curb panhandling and alleged inappropriate behavior on the Downtown Mall, city officials say they are taking another step toward making Charlottesville a safe, welcoming place. City Councilors recently voted to adopt a Downtown Ambassadors pilot program, which is intended to address problematic areas on the Mall, build relationships with business owners, and directly assist tourists.
At a cost of $80,000, the pilot program is expected to begin this year with four seasonal employees who will work 40-hour weeks throughout the coming fall, spring, and summer. After a careful selection process by city officials, ambassadors will receive training by both the Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Charlottesville Police Department.
Joan Fenton, who has owned multiple Downtown businesses since 2000, strongly supported the removal of the benches, and said she’s seen a significant difference on the Mall already.
“The crime, and the sounds of abusive language have diminished,” she said.
Fenton said the Downtown business community has pushed for this type of program for years, and she thinks it will make the Mall a more welcoming place.
“We are a tourist destination, and we strive to make the experience of our visitors, as well as locals, a positive one, so they will come back,” she said.”
According to department spokesman Lieutenant Ronnie Roberts, the Charlottesville Police Department will help the new ambassadors to understand the city’s court system and will provide training in report writing, radio communications, first aid, and CPR. From the CACVB, the new ambassadors will develop customer service skills and learn about interacting with tourists and assisting downtown business owners.
The program is significantly less expensive than the $1 million proposal Police Chief Tim Longo presented to Council in April when he requested more policing and permanent kiosks on the Mall. Though the ambassadors program will not provide coverage as extensive as Longo envisioned, Roberts said any approach to improving the Downtown Mall is better than nothing.
“It gives us an opportunity to look at approaches other than just putting a law enforcement officer down there,” he said.
At last Tuesday’s meeting, homeless advocate Nancy Carpenter expressed concerns about the program. The Mall will never be Disneyland, she said, and everyone has to learn to live together. She also worried about the role that the ambassadors would play.
“I’m concerned about the potential police powers these individuals might be given,” she said.
Roberts said the ambassadors will neither look like nor function as officers, but they will work collaboratively with the police department in order to provide extra support.
“They’ll basically be the eyes and ears for officers down there,” Roberts said. “It’s like having an outpost in the military.”
Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos, who vocally supported the program, said when she visited Washington, D.C. and Phoenix, Arizona, she met similar ambassadors, who stood out in brightly colored vests and helped her feel both safe and welcome in the unfamiliar cities.
“It’s just really somebody whose job it is to be available to answer questions, to be the troubleshooter for folks, and just kind of be there as the face of the city,” Szakos said.
In addition to providing information for tourists, Szakos said she thinks the program will help eliminate some of the crude behavior recently reported on the Mall.
“I think it will have some impact on how safe and comfortable people feel,” she said. “I think if somebody were on the Mall wanting to cause trouble, they’d have fewer opportunities with these people walking around.”