DTSM: Some Downtown stakeholders are questioning the value of safety ambassadors. Emily Sawicki

After facing high levels of staff turnover and public scrutiny over the course of the pandemic, new leadership is emerging at Downtown Santa Monica, Inc.

Following the departure of 25 year Executive Director & CEO Kathleen Rawson, a job offer has been given to a new CEO whose name will be announced in the coming weeks. Change is also underway within the DTSM Board as during a June 28 meeting City Council appointed three new Board members, who are all Downtown business owners and have fresh ideas for the organization. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Downtown has become a focal point for the citywide issues of homelessness and increased property crime. The area was also hit hard by the loss of tourists, shifts in retail trends and an uptick in vacancies. 

Against this backdrop, Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM) became the subject of criticism from a small but vocal group of Downtown property owners, whose complaints were echoed by Councilmember Phil Brock in an email in which he called for the dissolution of the DTSM Board.

The organization also faced a high level of staff turnover during the pandemic. Currently, only three of the fourteen individuals who were on staff at the beginning of 2020 still work for DTSM. The CEO, the Deputy Chief Executive and the Director of Marketing & Communication all departed the organization to take on leadership roles at The Hollywood Partnership.

DTSM is a non-profit organization that works with funding from the City and an assessment paid by Downtown businesses to promote the safety, cleanliness and vitality of the Promenade and Downtown business district. It is governed by a 13-member Board of Directors, which includes the City Manager, six Council appointed members and six members voted in by property owners. 

The three new Board members are Leonid Pustilnikov, Lucian Tudor and Luke Cain. Despite backing from Councilmembers Sue Himmelrich, Kristin McCowan and Gleam Davis, longtime board member Juan Matute did not receive the five necessary votes to be appointed to a third term. All new members signaled a desire for change within DTSM in their applications.

“It seems that we have a number of disagreements between the DTSM board members, property owners, residents, and other Stakeholders. Currently there is a lack of communication [as] the main reason,” wrote Lucian Tudor, the owner of 1212 restaurant on the Promenade.

Real estate investor Leonid Pustilnikov also noted a disconnect between DTSM and property owners in his application. 

“When I started investing on the Promenade, I noticed a complete lack of forethought and management. The established leadership had no interest in listening to business or property owners and instead let the brilliance of the Promenade fade,” wrote Pustilnikov.

Pustilnikov is a co-founder of the Santa Monica Bayside Owners Association, an organization that unsuccessfully fought to prevent the demolition of Downtown Parking Structure 3. 

The third new member is Luke Cain, who is a member of SMBOA, a real estate investor on the Promenade, and helps his parents manage the Britannia Pub.

Both Cain and Tudor indicated a desire to review the Downtown Ambassador Program. This program includes teams of safety, hospitality, maintenance, and quality of life ambassadors. Collectively they are in charge of maintaining cleanliness, assisting visitors, and working with the police department and homeless service providers to improve safety. 

“I’ve noticed while attending the Board meetings, Public Space and Placemaking meetings, and the Business and Community Development meetings, that there are significant issues that need to be addressed: 1) The $450,000 per month cost for the Ambassador Program…” wrote Cain. 

These new appointees and the other 13 board members will begin working with the new CEO when that individual comes on board in the coming week and will collectively determine the new staff structure for the organization.

Currently DTSM is operating with a pared down staff of five full time employees and one part-time employee. 

“Under the new leadership, DTSM expects to bring on additional staff members and continue to expand its internal structure. The final number of employees will depend on organizational priorities set by the Board of Directors, with guidance from the new CEO,” said Barry Snell, interim CEO and chair of the DTSM Board of Directors.

The next DTSM Board meeting will take place at 5 p.m. on July 28. 

Clara@smdp.com