Bayside District ambassador JD Simpson shows Italian tourist Emanuele Ajello around the Third Street Promanade earlier this month. So far the ambassadors, part of a program to make Downtown more attractive, have been a hit. (photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — Walking down the Third Street Promenade in a dark blue jacket emblazoned with the words “Santa Monica Downtown Ambassadors,” Shana Gadlin approached a group of tourists huddled around a map.

After a minute of talking and pointing, the group thanked Gadlin for her directions and moved along. Being a de-facto tour guide is just one of the many duties Gadlin and the other 25 ambassadors recruited to walk the streets of Downtown perform as part of the Bayside District’s ambassador program.

“I feel they’re very essential to the promenade,” said Alex Acuna, former ambassador and Bayside District Corp. operations manager.

The ambassador program, which costs $1.2 million a year, is funded by an assessment approved by district property owners in 2008. The ambassadors took to the streets in June to service the area’s three zones — the promenade, Second and Fourth streets and Ocean Avenue, and Fifth through Seventh streets. Property owners on the promenade pay the highest price and get the most ambassador attention, with each subsequent zone paying less.

In addition to the ambassadors, the assessment also pays for enhanced maintenance and cleaning.

The idea for ambassadors existed before the assessment, which is expected to generate $3.7 million a year for the next 20 years. Andrew Thomas, Bayside District Corp. director of operations, said he and others visited many communities with similar programs, including San Jose, Long Beach and Denver, Colo. to brainstorm methods for keeping Downtown clean and competitive with other nearby shopping areas, like the Grove and Century City.

“We visited these communities and saw what they were doing,” Thomas said. “We knew it would be a perfect fit.”

There are 10 ambassadors on duty each day during the hours of 8 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., with hours extended to 2:30 a.m. on weekends.

Gadlin said ambassadors perform a variety of services, from routine maintenance to handing out maps to escorting Downtown employees to their cars at night. They deal with the minor — pointing a pedestrian to the nearest public restroom — and the major — helping a parent find a missing child. They also make recommendations for restaurants and stores while keeping the focus on Downtown.

“The businesses pay for it, so we have to make sure they’re happy,” Acuna said.

The ambassadors log all of their activities on iPod touches. Acuna said he hopes to consolidate this information into reports for businesses so they know how often patrons are sent their way, confirming that their money is being well spent.

In addition to businesses, the ambassadors, who help enforce no biking and no smoking rules on the promenade, have made an alliance with the Santa Monica Police Department. Sgt. Dave Hunscke said all ambassadors are trained by the police department on dealing with criminal activity. Although they are told not to get involved, they relay tips and information officers use to follow up on incidents.

“They’re just extra eyes and ears for us and on the promenade,” Hunscke said.

The ambassadors are also equipped with radios so they can communicate with each other if they are unsure of how to answer a question. Once, when unable to communicate with a Spanish-speaking visitor, an ambassador radioed Acuna, who speaks Spanish and was able to provide an answer. There are other bilingual ambassadors as well.

Thomas said the program has received mainly positive feedback from local businesses and the public.

“I think it’s brilliant,” said Patrick Fischer, manager of Angelo’s Pawn Shop on Fifth street. “I think it’s one of the best things the city did.”

Jack Sarkissian, owner of Jack’s Jewelers on Santa Monica Boulevard, similarly appreciates the ambassadors’ efforts and referrals. Although the assessment did come at an expense to property owners, Sarkissian said he has not heard any complaints from his landlord.

“We get tremendously positive feedback about the ambassador program,” said Kathleen Rawson, Bayside District Corp. executive director. “Generally, the community of Santa Monica is very pleased with them.”

The program does have a cost, though, especially for non-profit groups forced to pay extra taxes with their already limited budgets. Emily Seiler, administrator for the Silvercrest Residence for senior citizens, said that she sees the safety benefits ambassadors bring and that the taxes are not raising rents for current residents. However, new tenants coming to Silvercrest will be charged higher rent to pay for the added expense.

Business owners could face similar rent increases. Moe Taherian, owner of Santa Monica Tobacco on Fourth Street, said he thinks the program shows that Santa Monica recognizes the importance of tourism, which he appreciates because his business is partially dependent on foreign patrons. Nonetheless, he did express concerns that his landlord will be forced to raise rent.

Some merchants believe negatives like these outweigh any positives.

“I don’t see what the point is,” said Martin Gonzalez of Ezai Floral Design on Fifth Street. “[There is] no benefit whatsoever as far as we can see.” He said the ambassadors do come by to say hello and ask how they are doing, but he sees no advantage business-wise.

Still, ambassadors insist they do more than meets the eye. Gadlin said the same people who dismiss the program as nothing more than a map-distributing service are shocked when they find themselves being escorted to their cars under an umbrella during a rainstorm.

“Some don’t understand,” she said. But, Gadlin added, others “say, ‘I’m so happy that you guys are here.’”

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