Lack of information and opposition have temporarily stalled a Rochester City Council vote on a proposed downtown pilot ambassador program.
“The majority of Council believe we need clarity on this item and it’s our hope we will gain clarity for next Council cycle,” City Council President Miguel Melendez said.
Without the delay, he said, there can’t be an informed decision by members in a vote that now could happen next month.
The tabling has been celebrated by foes of the proposal, who link the ambassador program with recent efforts to form a business improvement district.
At a Council meeting earlier this month, Mayor Malik Evans said the ambassador program would fit in with current initiatives on opioid prevention, workplace development, and connecting to available services as part of his Neighborhood Collaborative Program. Other information, such as a timeline or deliverables from the program, were not clear at that time and prompted the vote delay, Melendez indicated.
Funding for the pilots would come from the 2023-24 budget ($125,000) and the Opioid Compensation Fund ($250,000). The $375,000 would be divided evenly among three neighborhoods and their partner organizations: Barakah Muslim Charity for the Jefferson Avenue area, the Father Tracy Advocacy Center for North Clinton, and Rochester Downtown Development Corp. for the city’s center.
Program opponents are upset at the inclusion of the RDDC, whose partner organization, the Partnership for Downtown Rochester, is the lead organizer in the BID effort, and instead want the Council to “split the bill” between the projects. In July, RDDC announced plans for a pilot ambassador program; the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency approved $300,000 in funding.
In its announcement, RDDC said the program would bring “hospitality-focused guides to the downtown core to promote the area’s amenities and activities, and provide residents, workers, visitors and convention attendees with wayfinding and information.” BIDs run ambassador-type programs in cities such as Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Portland, Maine.
“We all travel and you know, when you go to a big city, you go to the concierge (and ask), ‘Where am I going to eat? How do I get to the museum? How do I get to the zoo?’ We do not have that. That’s what (an ambassador program) brings to the party,” Don Jeffries, president and CEO of Visit Rochester, said at a July COMIDA meeting. “It’s a friendly face downtown, someone who they can recognize. We want people to feel welcome here.”\
Also as a part of that meeting, Galin Brooks, executive director of the Partnership for Downtown Rochester, said the pilot would last 12 months, bring in an outside company with expertise for training and provide six to eight ambassador positions for city residents. She also said it had further funding from private organizations such as ROC2025, and would be a demonstration of a program a BID could run if formed.
“Why are we dumping money into this nebulous fund for the BID, supposedly intended for downtown revitalization, when we already have hundreds of Rochesterians on the ground doing this work of their own accord without receiving any funding from the city?” asked Abby Lupi, an event promoter with Roc Happenings, at an August speak to council meeting. “The BID means losing $300,000 of our tax dollars to an ambassador program to create manufactured consent for a project that doesn’t even exist yet.”
Apart from cost concerns, BID opponents cite the danger of ambassador programs being used against the unhoused or racial minorities. The group can be an ally to private security officers also hired by the BID to keep people “who aren’t ideal for commerce” out of the district.
Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Bob Duffy’s February 2022 letter of support for the BID mentions a need for greater security. He compared ambassadors to the “Red Shirt” program previously in Rochester with retired police officers walking and biking downtown.
In response to Duffy’s blog post, the BID Education Committee wrote: “The first question you should ask is who would feel this ‘sense of security’ with additional surveillance and close connection with the RPD? Would it be the entire community, or just one portion? And who is accountable, or held liable if the private security oversteps their bounds? Are property owners within the BID responsible? In a city struggling to get its Police Accountability Board running, motivated in part by the wake of excessive force used by officers during public protests, this is especially worrisome.”
Brooks disputes this image of the ambassador program. They will keep an eye on issues in public spaces, such as a broken stop sign, build up of litter, or a pothole on the road, she says. However, they would not be trained to intervene when it comes to dangerous situations that would involve emergency services.
“I’m familiar with many dozens of BIDs, so that, in my exposure, seems to be the exception not the rule,” said Brooks earlier this year of BIDs using private security. “There are a lot of BIDs and some of them will always be doing things differently than others. To do this work well, you have to be responsive to the conditions, the wants and needs of the community on the ground that a BID is going to serve.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].