Mar 18, 2011 Ami Olson Uncategorized
With an estimated 500 new visitors expected to pour into Syracuse every other day from April to July and funding at the ready, the time was right to kick off a new ambassador program and open the doors to the Downtown Security and Information Center at 404 S. Warren St.
The Downtown Committee unveiled the center, and its first ambassador, on March 4, offering out-of-towners and Syracuse-area residents both a storefront information center and an on-foot resource for quick answers to just about any question about downtown.
The center is a resource for Syracuse residents as much as it is for visitors, said Merike Treier, deputy director and director of economic development for the Downtown Committee of Syracuse.
“We’re doing this for everybody, for the Syracuse community,” Treier said, emphasizing that the resource was called “information center,” not “visitor’s center,” for a reason.
We were pretty particular in choosing the name, she added. Same goes for the location, which is really the second home of the center, though it’s a much more visual and inviting space than the center’s previous location in the Dey’s Brothers Building on South Salina Street.
The storefront on the Warren Street entrance of the Galleries is outfitted with racks of maps and brochures, two iPads and a wireless printer, chairs to rest tired feet and a full-time community service officer through the Syracuse Police Department.
Treier said “demystifying downtown” and improving the way people perceive the neighborhoods is a primary goal.
“We have a lot of hotspots of activity but they’re not all connected,” Treier said. “Things aren’t as well marked here as you might like, so having someone on the street being able to improve your experience when you come down here is going to be a lasting impression of Syracuse in your mind.”
The space also serves as a policing center for SPD officers on the downtown beat.
But the storefront is only half of the Downtown Committee’s latest initiative to make downtown a more welcoming place.
The ambassador program launched last week will make dedicated downtown representatives available to the public throughout the entire downtown district to answer questions about restaurants, parking, walking and driving directions, where to find a bathroom – you name it.
Victoria Sonne said in her first week as Syracuse’s first Downtown Ambassador, she already helped a visitor navigate the city.
The overnight snowstorm of Monday March 7 forced a motorist traveling from Canada to Florida to pull of I-81 into the city, and the woman found her way to the new Downtown Security and Information Center, a storefront that opened just a few days earlier.
“She popped in and I gave her a few maps and the parking brochure, and hopefully she’ll be back one day,” Sonne said.
A friendly face on the street
Sonne was hired as the first ambassador to work out of the new Downtown Information and Security Center in the Galleries. Her duties include answering questions, from where to find an ATM to which restaurant to visit, giving directions, picking up litter and generally being another set of eyes on the street.
She is in direct contact with the Syracuse Police Department, so while she won’t act as law enforcement she will be able to alert them to emergencies.
Treier said a second ambassador is expected to be hired by the end of the month, though finding another candidate with Sonne’s experience would be tough.
The Syracuse ambassador program is modeled after efforts in Center City Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla. and Atlanta, Treier said.
Syracuse already has the advantage of a Downtown Security force in addition to the SPD, Treier said, something many other cities with ambassador programs were looking to add to their roster.
Unlike many those programs in many other cities, Syracuse’s ambassadors are not expected to work directly with the homeless.
“The program may evolve into a program that helps the homeless,” Treier said. But first a community discussion on the best way to address the issue would be necessary.
Another difference in Syracuse’s program are the hours ambassadors and the center are available to the public. In many larger cities with similar programs, ambassadors are available on weekends and nights.
Treier said the ambassadors’ hours would shift for special events, but first priority was getting the program running and the ambassadors comfortable with the job.
Where’s the money coming from?
Though the space at the Galleries was donated, establishing the Downtown Security and Information Center and the ambassador program was not cheap.
The center itself is funded by the Downtown Committee, a not-for-profit that operates off a special assessment on commercial properties in the downtown district. A grant secured in 2009 by Assemblyman William Magnarelli will pay for the first two years of the ambassador program – including salaries and benefits for the ambassadors – and Treier said the Downtown Committee will take over funding the program after the money dries up.
About the Ambassador
Name: Victoria Sonne
Call her: Vicky or Victoria; also answers to “hey you in the red coat” and those who appear lost or confused
Grew up in Camillus
Spent four years of interpretation with the National Parks Service, then six years in law enforcement as National Park Ranger
Moved 11 times in 15 years before returning to her hometown
Favorite National Park she worked in: Olympic National Park, Forks, Wash.
Question she’s asked most often: “Where’s the bathroom?”