Downtown SLO wants to roll out a team of ambassadors to greet tourists and help homeless

A team of downtown San Luis Obispo ambassadors could be hired to provide visitor services as part of a proposed tax district conceived to keep the city’s core clean and safe, and assist the homeless.

Eight downtown ambassadors (including one currently staffed ambassador) would wear uniforms and greet people, among other duties, to help enhance the city’s economic climate and hospitality.

Part of their job also would be to help connect the homeless in the downtown to services.

The initiative for a Property-Based Business Improvement District (PBID) is currently in the planning stages; the assessment would bring in an estimated $800,000 per year to fund the expanded efforts.

“Downtown SLO is the heart of the region, and as such we need to protect it and make sure it stays healthy,” said Bettina Swigger, Downtown SLO’s chief executive officer. “With 600 residences slated to open in the next few years, and 250 hotel rooms coming on this summer, we have to act now.”

Properties downtown that house The Network, Barrel House, Avanti and more will soon go on the market as part of an estate sale. Photo by Joe Johnston 04-24-17 Joe Johnston

The ambassadors’ jobs would include helping drivers to find parking or offer directions to tourists.

The new tax, if approved, would include an estimated $500,000 for the ambassador program, $150,000 for beautification such as landscaping and wayfinding signage, and $150,000 for operations and communications.

A petition still must be completed before the assessment could be put to a vote by property owners within the downtown boundaries, which include the Monterey, Higuera, Palm, Marsh, and Pacific street corridors.

The vote and potential tax only would apply to downtown property owners, not city residents outside the zone or businesses that lease downtown commercial space.

A growing homeless population, nightlife nuisances, cleanliness of the sidewalks and creek, and parking difficulties all represent some of the challenges facing downtown SLO, according to a report compiled by the nonprofit in coordination with the consultant Progressive Urban Management Associates.

Swigger said the property owners who are advocating for this project “see it as a way forward to help compassionately address issues of homelessness and ensure that we keep our charming, small-town feeling downtown.”

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Parked cars line Chorro Street in downtown San Luis Obispo. SLO officials are encouraging drivers to park in downtown garages rather than on the street to avoid potential tickets if meters expire. The garages will soon have automated systems that allow motorists to “pay-on-foot” before leaving. Joe Johnston

The council will decide Tuesday night whether to authorize the city manager to sign the petition on behalf of the city to put the PBID on a ballot, provided the petition requirements are satisfied.

Currently, Downtown SLO has one ambassador, meaning seven new ones would be added.

Downtown SLO’s current ambassador cited stats from Oct. 1 through December showing that he removed 88 stickers from public property, cleaned 147 pieces of graffiti and disposed of 222 pounds of trash, while fielding 183 phone calls.

“There is clearly a need for his services, and he makes a huge difference,” Swigger said.

Since the allowance of Property-Based Business Improvement districts under California law in 1994, more than 100 similar districts have been formed in California downtowns and other commercial districts, including Los Angeles, Pasadena and Ventura.

The programs have resulted in higher property values, sales and tax revenues, as well as increased tenant occupancy, according to Downtown SLO’s report.

“They have a proven track record of creating clean, safe, accessible, and welcoming neighborhoods,” Swigger said.

Tracy Lee Strum from Santa Barbara works on her 3D chalk painting. The Tribune

In February, the City Council approved downtown vitality as a major city goal, which includes: “supporting the economic and cultural heart of the city with attention to safety, maintenance, infrastructure, and amenities.”

Derek Johnson, SLO’s city manager, wrote in a letter to Swigger, published in a city staff report, that the “city of San Luis Obispo is supportive” of Downtown SLO’s efforts to determine if a district is needed.

The city’s services in the downtown include bike patrol officers, community action team officers (working with chronic criminal offenders or those who cause complaints), street maintenance, parking monitors, and more, Johnson noted.

City services wouldn’t be replaced by a new district, city officials said.

“The (district) has the potential to be a real asset to the kind of quality, safety, and general welcoming nature of the downtown,” said Charlene Rosales, the city’s economic development director, in a phone call to The Tribune.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.