Members of the Central Business Improvement District Commission agreed Tuesday (June 18) to gather information on a possible “Ambassador” program to address a growing concern about the safety of those who live in, work in, and visit downtown Fort Smith.
Some safety concerns are tied to heavy truck traffic and long pedestrian crossings required by the wide Garrison Avenue. Consultants working on a downtown truck traffic study recently reported survey results showing that Garrison Avenue safety issues included vehicles running red lights and unsafe pedestrians crossings. Fifty percent of those surveyed said they did not feel comfortable or safe when walking, jogging or biking downtown.
But what some are calling a rise in the number of homeless in downtown Fort Smith is contributing to non-traffic related safety concerns. Jana Mundy, a property manager for Fort Smith-based Griffin Properties, told CBID members the homeless issue “has worsened significantly over the last several months.” She said the homeless who remain in the downtown area are typically “combative and completely disrespectful” of shop owners, residents and others.
“I don’t see that we’re doing anything to handle the issue,” Mundy wrote in a prepared note provided to the CBID. “They (homeless) lay up in front of buildings and refuse to move. They use our parking lots and sidewalks as dumpsters. They sleep in and around our dumpsters and leave feces smeared around. … Residents are fearful when going to the dumpster or going to their vehicles because they don’t know what is lurking there ‘this time.’”
City Administrator Carl Geffken spoke briefly about an ambassador program in Reading, Pa., – a city with a population similar to that of Fort Smith – that was funded and managed by the city’s CBID equivalent. The program provided “security and goodwill duties” within the downtown area. Geffken, Reading’s managing director between 2010-2012, and the city’s director of administrative services between 2009 and 2011, said the program was popular and effective in helping with downtown development.
Talicia Richardson, director of 64.6 Downtown, said the Argenta district in downtown North Little Rock has an ambassador program with two paid employees. She said she has talked to the Argenta director to begin gathering program details.
CBID Chairman Bill Hanna and CBID member Steve Clark said they like the idea of such a program, but would want it to fit with specific downtown Fort Smith needs. Clark recommended getting more info about what did and didn’t work at Argenta and in other areas with similar programs. Hanna said safety should be a priority, because “no (development) priority is going to work until we have safety downtown.”
Richardson encouraged the CBID to add funding ideas to the mix.
“A funding source needs to be sustainable. … You don’t want to start it and then fall short,” she said.
CBID members agreed to begin the process – including a possible trip to downtown North Little Rock – of crafting an ambassador program for downtown Fort Smith. With a plan in place, they can then better assess an appropriate budget, Hanna said. He also asked for a report on the plan to be included in the CBID July meeting agenda.