'Downtown ambassadors' intended to de-escalate problems at Greene Square, Cedar Rapids library

Program in response to past violence

Cedar Rapids Police officers talk to people in Greene Square in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, May. 15, 2018. (Stephen Mally/T
Cedar Rapids Police officers talk to people in Greene Square in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, May. 15, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Downtown leaders want to tap into some of the most frequent visitors to Greene Square, the library, the Ground Transportation Center and other gathering places to cultivate good behavior and keep those areas clean of litter following a violent spring and summer last year.

A “downtown ambassador” program is slated to launch in June as a three-month trial, pending City Council approval on Tuesday. The ambassadors are being asked to engage with people, provide information about local resources, remind people of rules, de-escalate situations before conflict and do some clean up.

“I am excited to be able to put people who really care about these places into a position to take care of them,” said Phoebe Trepp, executive director of Willis Dady Homeless Services.

Willis Dady, which will administer the program, specifically sought to hire people who’ve had experiences with using local social services and struggled with housing to provide peer support, she said.

The concept emerged through conversations with downtown stakeholders after a series of violent outbursts involving teenagers, transients and others at Greene Square, including the death of Scott Dexter, 38, early last June.

Officials from the library, the Downtown District, City Council, police department, parks department, public transit and Willis Dady have been meeting regularly since then to identify and develop ways to ensure the public spaces remain welcoming for all.

“Unfortunately, it took a tragic event to galvanize the community, but today we have a better understanding of who uses the park, the challenges they may face and what is needed to create a safe and welcoming atmosphere in our downtown,” City Council member Dale Todd said, noting the addition of security cameras and enacting a ban on smoking and drinking as examples of recent changes. “We have been able to implement many of the ideas they were originally submitted, this component was the last piece of the puzzle.”

Six ambassadors have already been hired and will be paid $10.25 per hour, Trepp said. The ambassadors will focus on Second to Fifth Avenues SE and Seventh Street SE to the Cedar River during the afternoon and evening hours. There would be two shifts daily — 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. and 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. — with one or two people assigned per shift.

The different stakeholder groups have chipped in to create an initial budget of $30,000. Money is expected to be left over to either expand the program, launch a second phase or potentially return to the contributor, Trepp said.

Dara Schmidt, the library director, said the program framework was developed after researching similar efforts in St. Paul, Minn., Davenport and other cities in the Midwest.

“We want to work with other stakeholders to ensure safe, friendly public spaces downtown,” Schmidt said. “With the volume of people we see in the summer, having extra help in keeping the exterior of the library beautiful is a great investment for us. We look forward to ambassadors spending time in and around the library and downtown area, creating a respectful and peaceful environment, communicating issues with appropriate parties, and helping with trash pickup and recycling.

Cedar Rapids police plan to track data and hope to see a drop in calls for service and crime at Greene Square and the surrounding area where the ambassadors are assigned.

“We think the ambassadors can remind people of park rules, and hopefully intervene in some minor situations that they can handle, which would relieve law enforcement from responding,” said Lt. Tony Robinson, who is responsible for the central district.

Jesse Thoeming, Downtown District executive director, notified downtown stakeholders of the program.

“We’re hopeful this program — modeled after comparable initiatives in communities similar in size to Cedar Rapids — will help curtail the recent trends we’ve seen over the past two to three years in terms of reported incidents/disturbances, while at the same time helping parks and our downtown team keep the area clean and inviting,” he wrote in an email to downtown businesses.

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