The downtown assessment on Fort Smith properties within the Central Business Improvement District (CBID) will at the least be delayed another year, but the Fort Smith Police Department is already working on a downtown ambassador program.
The CBID approved a resolution in November that could lead to a 6 mil assessment on property in the district that could fund a “Safety and Security” program for the downtown district. According to state law, there are two types of assessments that can be levied against real property inside a city’s improvement district – a project/improvement-specific assessment, levied to fund a “specific ‘plan of improvement,’” or a supplemental annual assessment to be used for ongoing operations or maintenance activities. Bill Hanna, CBID board chair, has said the Fort Smith CBID is one of the few in the state not funded by an assessment.
The CBID commission plans to use monies garnered from an assessment to fund an ambassador program that would hire off-duty police officers as part of a Safety and Security program for downtown. That program would cost about $136,000 annually, according to a proposed operating budget.
The assessment would also fund a Green and Clean project that would include streetscape maintenance and landscaping, which could incorporate care of flowerbeds as well as pruning and possible replacement of trees, cleaning and repairs to benches, lighting and trash receptacles, litter control, conversion of lights along Garrison Avenue to LED and more. The CBID would need about $300,000 to fund both programs.
Before an assessment can be levied, more than 50% of property owners in the district must sign a petition agreeing to an assessment. While CBID commissioners reviewed a draft of a petition at its board meeting Tuesday (Jan. 19), there are still questions Michelle Allgood, the attorney working with the CBID on the assessment question, needs to answer before commissioners can circulate the petition for signatures. She said Tuesday that monies from any potential assessment would not be available until 2022.
However, downtown property and business owners want the ambassador program to start in hopes it will help deter a downtown vagrancy and homeless. And Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker has an alternative option. The Fort Smith Police Department has begun an ambassador program, hiring Jon Raspberry as the department’s downtown ambassador/meter technician.
Baker said in November the police department would take its vacant meter enforcement position and rework it into an ambassador position with added responsibilities. The person in the position would continue to enforce downtown parking meters as well as other duties related to downtown and should act as a deterrent to some of the issues faced downtown. The Fort Smith parks department office at the Riverfront Park is being transformed into a space for the ambassador program, Baker said. The ambassador would not be a sworn police officer but would have full FSPD communication capabilities, which would allow police officers to be called in for backup when needed in dealing with vagrants and criminal matters.
The new position is under the supervision of the patrol special operations sergeant and is responsible for establishing professional relationships with downtown business owners, employees and guests of the City of Fort Smith, said Patrol Special Operations Captain Daniel Grubbs. He serves as “an ambassador to our city and proactively engages the public with friendly greetings and provides assistance when needed,” Grubbs said. Raspberry also will routinely meet with downtown partners and assist with resolving nuisance issues.
“If a nuisance issue requires police assistance, an officer will be called to assist. The Downtown Ambassador will provide visual deterrence to criminal activity and will report any such observed activity to the police department via police radio or cellphone,” Grubbs said.
He also will have oversight of parking meter enforcement in the downtown area, including overtime parking citations, maintaining the meters, reporting parking problems and collecting paid ticket money from the collection boxes.
Raspberry began his career with the Fort Smith Police Department June 24, 2018, as a parking meter technician, a position he had until July 2019 when he took a position with building maintenance.
“Jon was the Department’s Employee of the Month in October 2019 thanks to an unsurpassed work ethic, unwavering dedication to his duties, and a friendly attitude and demeanor,” Grubbs said.
The proposed assessment would allow for the ambassador program to grow to more than one person, because one person cannot cover the downtown area all the time, but the FSPS position allows the program to start.
“Not to say by any means that this is a be all to end all, but hopefully it is a step in the right direction,” Baker said in November.
Grubbs said Raspberry will work predominantly business hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. but will be flexible to attend after-hours meetings.
“Progressive cities are implementing full-time downtown ambassador(s) to provide readily identifiable servants for those who work, visit and/or live in the downtown area of our city. An emphasis will be friendly customer service and safety for our downtown area. The ambassador will assist as a liaison between the police department and our downtown partners to solve nuisance issues,” Grubbs said.
Though Raspberry has been making his presence known downtown since the first of the year, he has not taken on his role in a full-time capacity yet because of other vacancies in the department and logistics, Grubbs said. He is expected to in the coming weeks. But so far, the department has received “very positive support for this position (which was created in cooperation with the city’s human resources department, the CBID and downtown representatives) from business owners and the public,” Grubbs said.