Security guards to be replaced by 'ambassadors' in downtown SLO

Colin Buckler with Paso Robles' InHouse Security patrols the streets of downtown San Luis Obispo on Tuesday.
Colin Buckler with Paso Robles' InHouse Security patrols the streets of downtown San Luis Obispo on Tuesday. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Licensed guards, in uniform, have long been a fixture in downtown San Luis Obispo.

But after eight years discouraging petty crimes such as panhandling, loitering and public intoxication, they will soon be replaced by ambassadors who will serve as unofficial guides — offering suggestions on places to eat, giving directions and keeping an eye on the area.

“The concept is that we are the happiest town in America, and we want the friendliest faces representing us,” said Dominic Tartaglia, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, which is ending its $50,000 contract Monday with InHouse Security of Paso Robles.

“We don’t want people walking around with stun guns and tasers right now.”

It’s not yet known when the ambassador program will start.

But they will work the same hours as the security guards: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, except Thursdays when they’ll work until 9 p.m. because of the SLO Farmers Market.

The ambassadors will also be trained in city code enforcement and work with police to identify any problem behaviors downtown.

For example, if someone is drinking on a bench and doesn’t stop when asked, the ambassador will call the police, Tartaglia said.

Cody Hartwell, manager at Creeky Tiki on Higuera Street, said the new ambassador program sounds enticing because of its tourism focus.

“The security guards' presence was probably a good thing to have, because of the homeless especially, but I don’t know if their authority rings true,” Hartwell said. “I like the idea of the ambassadors.”

Police coverage of the downtown has also changed in the last year, reducing the need for a security firm, Tartaglia said.

The San Luis Obispo Police Department’s Community Action Team — a two-person team — was launched a year ago and now patrols the area four days a week, working directly with transients and other repeat offenders.

An additional patrol officer was also added to the downtown beat in the last year.

“At the time we hired the security, we didn’t have the police presence we have now downtown,” said Tartaglia, adding that security guards rarely, if ever, made arrests.

San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell said the department has a positive relationship with the security guards but supports the change.

“Morphing into this concept of an ambassador program fits the concept of downtown San Luis Obispo,” Gesell said. “They will continue to be the additional eyes and ears for police that the current security contract provides and provide an added service of provisions to the downtown shops and business owners.”

Tartaglia said the final concepts of the new program are still being worked out and was unsure when the program would launch.

Shawn Withey, owner of InHouse Security, said he is proud of the work his company did for the city. Five full-time guards were assigned to the area; they will be moved to fill posts with other contracts.

“It was a very successful eight years as far as cleaning up San Luis Obispo,” said Withey. “Unfortunately the situation is that the board has decided it is no longer needed, and I have to respect that decision.”