DOWNTOWN — Gino Marcello Adina always enjoyed playing the part of the helpful local, directing inquiring visitors to their destination and answering questions about the city.
So when the Santa Monica resident and writer saw an advertisement that the Bayside District Corp. was looking for a group of friendly people to staff its new Ambassadors Program, he thought it would be a natural fit.
Today Adina is one of 25 ambassadors who make up the face of Downtown, serving as the eyes and ears of the city’s biggest commercial district, assisting visitors while at the same time offering a sense of security.
“I love interacting with people and I think it’s a great program because our city really needs it,” Adina, who writes for restaurant magazines, said.
The program, which officially launched on Monday, is funded with revenue from the new Property Based Assessment District, which Downtown property owners established last year to improve services, including maintenance. The new district is estimated to bring in approximately $3.4 million annually, a substantial hike from the preceding two assessments that raised in a combined $1 million together.
Approximately 800 people applied to be ambassadors, a field that was narrowed down to more than two dozen by Block by Block, a management company that was hired to institute the program.
“They looked for the right type of people to interact with the community in a very positive way,” Kathleen Rawson, the executive director of Bayside, said. “(The ambassadors) have all undergone extensive training to make sure we address all issues they may encounter Downtown.”
The training was conducted over several days with various organizations and agencies in the city, including the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), which ran its “I am Santa Monica” customer service course, the Santa Monica Police Department, which educated the ambassadors on applicable municipal codes, and the Human Services Division of City Hall, which discussed the homeless issue.
The ambassadors do not have any law enforcement powers and have instead been taught to respond to incidents like a regular citizen, contacting the police substation or dispatch, Lt. Darrell Lowe of the SMPD said.
“They can be an extra set of eyes and ears for the PD,” Lowe said.
The homeless portion of the curriculum addressed how the ambassadors should respond when approached by panhandlers and how to advise visitors, recommending that they direct the money to social service agencies instead.
The lesson plan also included a historical overview of the issue and current efforts by City Hall.
“I stressed that people should be respectful,” Danielle Noble, senior administrative analyst for homeless services, said.
The ambassadors spent two hours in class for the “I am Santa Monica” lesson, after which they received a tour of the various business improvement districts in the city, including Main Street, learning about everything from history to arts and culture, Alison Best, the vice president of sales for the CVB, said.
Wearing salmon-colored shirts, the ambassadors circulate the area on Segways, allowing them to cover more ground during their shifts. Staffing is heavier on the weekends and during the Wednesday Farmers’ Market.
“We chose the Segway over bicycles for the reasons that they are more approachable,” she said.
The ambassadors come from all walks of life, Rawson said. Some are young, some are a bit older. Several are Santa Monica residents, others are newcomers to the city.
Niki Svara found out about the job through a posting on Craigslist, hooked on the idea of walking around and meeting people for a living.
Originally from Oregon, Svara said she came into the program with little knowledge about the city, but feels she learned a lot through the training program. She moved to Hollywood about a month ago and plans to relocate to Santa Monica.
When Svara gets stumped on a question, a quick call over the radio will usually bring the answer.
“I feel we’ve been very helpful to people in terms of getting information and helping to find things,” she said.
Riding around on a Segway, people are first taken aback when approached by an ambassador, but the initial reaction is soon followed by a smile, Adinas, who described riding the vehicles as “floating,” said.
“The tourists are very thankful to have someone for information and the residents are happy we’re there to give out information (so) they’re not bothered,” he said.
Along with jump-starting the Ambassadors Program, Block by Block also received a more than $1 million contract with Bayside to maintain eight public parking structures in Downtown.
Its contract covers structures 1-6, and 9, which are all on Second and Fourth streets. It also includes structure 10, which is on Third Street just north of the promenade.
Bayside also hired H20 for a roughly $1 million power-washing deal.
The contracts are meant to supplement existing maintenance services provided by City Hall.
Rawson compared it to the occasional carpet steam cleaning to daily maintenance.
“The issue was that there were more resources that needed to be put into the cleaning efforts because you can only do so much with what you got,” Rawson said.