Monday, March 2, 2015

Downtown Ambassador Update

Gentle reader, have you been wondering about the current state of the DDA's Downtown Ambassador Program? I have and I found some answers in Concentrate's recent interview with DDA member Roger Hewitt:
CONCENTRATE: The downtown ambassadors program has caused lots of controversy. People have said it doesn't fit with the character people want to see in their downtown, and that it seeks to solve a problem that doesn't exist. Do you understand that criticism, and what is your reaction to it?

RH: We definitely heard the criticism. We are going forward at a very measured, careful pace as a result of it. There was a lot of misinformation about what the program was going to do, and I don't know how that information got out. Most of the commenters, if you read them, hadn't read any of the information that we put out about the program. And these are programs that are throughout the nation. We've identified at least 70 downtowns that have this program, including Berkley, and they seem to be quite happy with it there.

Before we do anything on ambassadors, we need to to explain exactly what we're trying to do with this program, which is, basically, help people at all levels. Whether you are a panhandler on the street or whether you are parents bringing a student in, it's someone there to offer some help if you need it. To me, it's a very fundamental Ann Arbor value.

I think there is somewhat of a disconnect between what goes on in the campus area and what goes on in the Main Street area. I don't think everyone understands the different cultures of the two areas. [The problem the ambassadors program is seeking to solve] is primarily in the campus area. So people are not seeing it. At night, particularly later in the evening, there is a fair amount petty crime that goes on that would make an extra set eyes on the street helpful. I think there are more homeless people in the campus area and a number of these people need help. Both the boards of the State Street Association and the South University Association unanimously support the ambassador program.

But we certainly have heard people, and we certainly aren't going to ram anything down people's throats. We are certainly not going to start negotiating a contract until the community has a good understanding of the program and at least a majority of people support of it.

You should read the whole interview on Concentrate. But getting back to the Ambassador Program, here are some of my thoughts:
The widespread criticism of the program has worked, sort of. Hewitt seems to discount some of by classifying it as "misinformed." Still, they don't want to "ram anything down people's throats." So keep those comment cards coming and attend DDA meetings and speak during public commentary if you can.

Seems like the DDA Board is responding to a lot of pressure from the South University Association and the State Street Association boards. How much do those boards represent the businesses in their regions? How many people are on those boards? How can we influence those board members? How much should the DDA respond to the Down Town Neighborhood Associations relative to regular citizens?

It still seems like the Ambassador Program would be used to get "eyes on the streets" in order to prevent minor property crime, "aggressive panhandling," and direct homeless people to services. Why do we need to hire a shady outside corporation to do this? Couldn't the DDA just spend the $300k per year to hire an extra police officer or two and some social workers?

The DDA at a turning point?
Some thoughts on the DDA Ambassador Program and Homelessness


  1. Thanks for writing this, Ben; I'd been meaning to post something on that article.

  2. If "Berkley" is referring to Berkeley, CA (my residence for the last six months), Mr. Hewitt should know that I've never seen any of these so-called Ambassadors.