DDA wants safety ‘ambassadors’


Although portions of downtown Grand Rapids have been perceived as somewhat unsafe for decades, one individual who has been heavily involved with the district for the past year feels that perception is changing.

He also feels the latest action taken by his organization in this area will push that change forward.

Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Kristopher Larson, who assumed his post last August, was recently given a green light to enter into negotiations with a Louisville company to bring a “safety ambassador” program to downtown.

Larson is talking details with officials at Block by Block, a firm that uses what is called a hospitality-based approach to meet a downtown’s need for a safe, clean and profitable public environment. It provides this management service for 65 downtown districts nationwide, including Long Beach, Calif., where Larson worked before he came here.

“These are not security guards or just smiling faces,” Larson said of the program’s personnel.

Larson said Block by Block was unanimously selected over two others that responded to the RFP the DDA issued in June. The DDA, Downtown Alliance, Joe Elliot, Jenn Shaub and former state senator and city commissioner Robert Dean, who now directs the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, made up the selection panel.

Block by Block’s long history of supplying this service and the number of markets it serves were major factors in choosing it.

The DDA is willing to spend up to $300,000 a year for this service; the funds will come from the board’s non-tax account, which largely consists of parking revenue the DDA receives from the lots it owns.

But first, Larson has to negotiate the contract, have it reviewed by the legal staff and then ratified by the board before it becomes an official contract.

Block by Block will hire and train the staff and manage the ambassador program. Larson said between six and eight positions will be available to local residents. The hourly pay is expected to be above minimum wage; the ambassadors are projected to work a collective 272 hours each week.

Larson said the ambassadors will check in with business owners daily, help visitors find their destinations and report unusual occurrences.

“It’s a very challenging program with the level of supervision that is required,” said Larson. “The overall profit margin is pretty low; it’s about 6 percent.”

The idea for adding the program to the district’s offerings came from the Framework Plan done by a Denver consultant for the DDA in 2011. It also was listed as a top priority in a report by the Division Avenue Task Force.

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