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Mayor Evans asks City Council to fund ambassadors for downtown, as well as Jefferson, North Clinton

Rochester's skyline from Court Street
James Brown
Rochester's skyline from Court Street

Mayor Malik Evans is asking City Council to kick in $125,000 for a downtown ambassador program. And the same amount for programs in other city neighborhoods.

The downtown program would serve as guides, directing people to restaurants and attractions. Where programs along Jefferson Avenue in the southwest, and North Clinton Avenue in the northeast, could function in more of an outreach capacity.

“They can refer people to job opportunities,” the mayor said. “They can address a lot of the opioid issues that we have in the neighborhoods. So this is a exciting opportunity to pilot for a year. We want to see how it's going to work. But I'm convinced that by the end of it, we will have a pretty good story to tell.”

The downtown effort is being led by advocates of a special business improvement district or BID, and is seen as a demonstration project of what such a district could do. BIDs collect additional fees from property owners within the district to supplement municipal investment with added plantings, maintenance, events and such.

With a budget of $600,000 – bolstered by funding from the county and businesses – the ambassadors program would be more robust than the city’s solo neighborhood effort. But there has been pushback, with critics likening the idea to a private security force.

“The individuals who are going to be hired are going to be individuals from the neighborhood,” Evans said. “These aren't people who are going to be rousting anybody. This is about uplifting neighborhoods and providing resources for people.”

City Council could consider the matter later this month. With approval, officials said the downtown ambassadors could be ready to launch Dec. 1.

Evans dismissed the notion that he bundled the neighborhood and downtown programs in a single spending request to make approval of the downtown funding more palatable.

He said he had been thinking about such programs for years – building off an idea that Jefferson Avenue residents floated more than a decade ago. City Council member WIllie Lightfoot, who operates a barbershop and newly opened laundromat on Jefferson Avenue, said he shared the neighborhood plan with Evans a few weeks ago. Lightfoot had not yet seen the mayor’s legislation when contacted on Wednesday.

Listen: Discussing the proposal for a downtown improvement district.

With the Jefferson and North Clinton programs, Evans expects to partner with community groups already doing similar work. But he wants to do more. In addition to connecting people with housing and jobs programs or helping address substance abuse issues, he says the ambassadors could be handing out food, toiletries and other items

“You're going to have people to be able to connect with people in the neighborhood, and give them resources on the ground,” the mayor said. “And what we've lost during COVID is this on the ground connection to individuals. It's just something that has dissipated. And I've noticed it.”

Those working on the downtown program expect to contract with an outside agency to hire and train ambassadors.

In depth: Showdown over a downtown business improvement district

How robust the Jefferson and North Clinton programs will be is unclear. A launch date is uncertain but Evans is pushing to get started as soon as possible and already is looking beyond the one-year testing period.

“Afterwards, we want to see where we want to add,” he said, “because we'd like to have much more of these. If we can. We want to make sure they are going to be effective.”

Lyell Avenue is a possibility. And City Council Vice President Mary Lupien points to Monroe Avenue and Genesee Street – where she said the money might be better spent than downtown.

Evans is proposing funding the downtown program with city tax dollars, and the neighborhood programs with money received from settlements on lawsuits against opioid manufacturers.

From the archive: In search of street vitality, Rochester considers business improvement districts

Brian Sharp is WXXI's business and development reporter. He has been covering Rochester since 2005, working most of that time as an investigative reporter with the Democrat and Chronicle. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.