What would BID safety ambassadors bring to downtown?

NO SUPPORT: Downtown business owner Rebecca Hecht says in a letter to Asheville City Council that she can't support a business improvement district and a team of safety and hospitality ambassadors "until we have 24/7 community paramedic response with behavioral health specialists uniquely qualified to address the behavioral health and opioid epidemic in downtown.” she wrote in a March 25 letter to Asheville City Council. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

At its March 26 meeting, Asheville City Council heard details about a proposal for a business improvement district in downtown Asheville, spearheaded by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Asheville Downtown Association. Eva-Michelle Spicer, BID steering committee member and Spicer Greene Jewelers co-owner, described the safety and hospitality services that supporters say a BID and its ambassadors could provide: observation and reportage of issues, business engagement, and interaction with the public and members of the homeless population.

Spicer said ambassadors would wear matching polo shirts to be identifiable. They could give directions, make referrals to services such as community paramedics, provide an escort to parking at night “or [do] a special cleanup of needles or biohazards,” she explained. Ambassadors could also connect homeless people to “services when possible, allowing [Asheville Police Department] to focus on serious crime.”

BIDs are meant to provide assistance above and beyond those provided by the municipality. A downtown Asheville BID website, created by the Chamber of Commerce, details the services already provided by Asheville at avl.mx/dk5, including those related to homelessness outreach.

Currently, Buncombe County and Asheville have two resources addressing the challenges posed by behavioral health and substance use in the community. The co-responder unit — a partnership between the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services — debuted last summer and operates countywide under the community paramedics. Also last summer, the Asheville Fire Department launched a community responder program staffed by firefighters, which focuses primarily on downtown.

When asked how a BID’s safety ambassadors might coordinate with and work alongside community responders, Patrick Crudup, AFD assistant fire chief of operations, told Xpress, “We don’t see any issue with communicating. … It will probably happen pretty seamlessly.”

APD spokesperson Samantha Booth referred Xpress to the City of Asheville for “more helpful insight regarding discussions and roles.” In a statement to Xpress, city spokesperson Kim Miller wrote, “Given the current status of the proposal, it is not the appropriate time for City of Asheville staff to address the matter.”

What is a BID?

Under state law, City Council must approve a BID.

Its services would be funded by assessments on properties within a defined boundary (not including nonprofits, government buildings and religious institutions) at 9 cents per $100 of taxable value. If approved, safety and hospitality ambassadors could be serving downtown as soon as this summer.

A BID operates as a nonprofit and is governed by a board. Ambassadors would be contracted workers for the BID management organization, explains Zach Wallace, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce vice president of public policy, in an interview with Xpress.

Block by Block is a BID management organization that provided input for the proposed safety and hospitality services in downtown Asheville. It suggested an estimated 300-400 hours of weekly service, seven days per week, morning through midnight. The company proposed appointing two to three safety and hospitality ambassadors who would serve from 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 3:30-11:30 p.m., as well as one outreach ambassador and one outreach social worker during periods to be determined.

The proposed annual budget is $700,000 for safety and hospitality services, according to the BID proposal.

If the City Council approves the BID proposal, city staff would develop and issue a request for proposals for a BID management organization, Miller wrote in a statement to Xpress.

‘A handoff’ to other services

Progressive Urban Management Associates produced a feasibility study on how a BID could operate in downtown Asheville, which was paid for by the chamber. PUMA senior strategist Yvette Freeman says the concern that Asheville citizens continually voiced in interviews for her company’s proposal research was, “We need more police. We don’t see the police.”

However, Freeman and Wallace emphasize that BID safety ambassadors aren’t meant to fill the role of law enforcement. Safety ambassadors would not carry weapons, and “I don’t hear anybody asking for that,” Wallace tells Xpress. “There needs to be a clear line between an ambassador’s role and law enforcement’s role.”

He believes the community needs “different levels of response … to different issues. If it’s a spectrum, [ambassadors are] going to be working with the lower end of that spectrum. Law enforcement is at the top, and some of these alternative responses [like the county co-responders are] in the middle. A BID ambassador could be the person that says, ‘OK, this is not in my training, but I know who to call.’”

Wallace says the BID steering committee has discussed the BID proposal with homelessness social service providers Homeward Bound, which operates AHOPE Day Center on North Ann Street, and Western Carolina Rescue Ministries on Patton Avenue.

Other cities have both safety ambassadors working for a BID and a municipal co-responder program like the one in Buncombe County. As for how the two entities might work together, “I think a ‘handoff’ is a good way to characterize it,” Freeman says. The main role for ambassadors is “having a distinctly uniformed presence. They get to know the community … [and] the folks who are often on the street. They develop a trust.”

Freeman referenced recent work by safety ambassadors in a California city she declined to name, where a woman experiencing a mental health episode threw something at a bank’s window. The ambassadors “were present while she was doing what she was doing, and it gave an indication to passersby [that] ‘yes, this is happening, but you can pass,’” Freeman explains. “They almost created a wall of safety, or a barrier, between what was happening [and the public], while maintaining their own safety.”

Ambassadors typically are trained in first aid and can be trained how to administer naloxone, the opioid reversal drug, or operate an atrial defibrillator, Freeman says. Wallace adds that it may be possible to specify in a management organization’s hiring contract the specific training the community desires its safety ambassadors to have.

Seeking the ‘right response’

CONVINCING COUNCIL: At its March 26 meeting, Asheville City Council heard details about a proposal for a business improvement district in downtown Asheville, spearheaded by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Asheville Downtown Association. Screenshot courtesy of YouTube/City of Asheville

Safety and hospitality ambassadors would be perceived as a welcome addition by some — additional “eyes and ears” on the street. But others aren’t sure that such a program is a priority. At the conclusion of the March 26 BID presentation, Council member Kim Roney questioned whether the assumed role for safety ambassadors would be more appropriate for a collaboration with Buncombe County’s community paramedics and its co-responder program.

“We have serious overlapping crises of behavioral health, substance use poisoning, overdose, homelessness,” Roney said at the meeting. “[The city is] not yet partnering with the county in the way that we could grow the community paramedicine program with community health specialists uniquely qualified to meet crises. So there’s a gap in our base-level services.”

Roney continued, “Ambassadors are not the right person with the right tools and training for the crises that I just named. What’s going to happen, because we don’t have a holistic response yet, [is] the ambassadors are going to be met with these crises every day. We’re going to fail them.”

Roney then implored the city and county to increase the county’s community paramedicine program and co-responders unit. “Then we would have a solid public safety response, so when you call 911, we send the person with the right tools and the right training,” she said.

Downtown business owner Rebecca Hecht, a former Asheville Downtown Association member and former Downtown Commission member, echoed those sentiments in an email to City Council members March 25. “I can’t support a BID until we have 24/7 community paramedic response with behavioral health specialists uniquely qualified to address the behavioral health and opioid epidemic in downtown,” Hecht wrote.

In an interview with Xpress at her Wall Street leather goods shop, Hecht explained that she supported a previous BID when it was proposed in 2012. However, she feels that the quality of municipal services provided has decreased and that downtown residents and businesses shouldn’t have to shoulder additional taxes in a BID, which she doesn’t think will directly address downtown’s issues about homelessness and crime.

“If the county’s already got the [community paramedicine] program, why not really bring some focus on that downtown?” Hecht says. “It’s the right kind of response to homelessness and mental health challenges.”

She notes community paramedics have more advanced training than safety ambassadors and therefore can more directly help individuals, rather than handing them off to someone else. “The BID money will just be spent chasing that issue around downtown,” Hecht says.

County co-responders: ‘No mental health clinicians’

The role of the county’s co-responder unit within the community paramedicine program appears to be in flux.

In October, Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller and county EMS Director Taylor Jones held a press conference about the co-responder unit, which they said the county had launched quietly over the summer. Three BCSO deputies and two mental health clinicians served on the unit.

When asked by Xpress for an update about co-responders in April, county spokesperson Lillian Govus wrote in an email, “There’s no update from the fall.”

But community paramedicine program manager Claire Hubbard confirmed in an email that the co-responder unit currently has no behavioral health clinicians on staff and therefore cannot provide a consistent behavioral health response. “The community paramedic program continues to collaborate with the co-response deputies as a stakeholder when possible and appropriate,” Hubbard wrote. “We do not have anyone dedicated to this initiative.”

Jones and Hubbard referred further questions about the county co-responder program to BCSO. BCSO spokesperson Aaron Sarver did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

City responder update

At the city level, the community responder program is seeking to expand. It continues to be staffed by five members of the Fire Department, says Crudup, the assistant fire chief. These individuals volunteered to work on the city’s community responder program instead of fire suppression and received some training on mental health and deescalation.

AFD received approval by City Council to fund five positions to replace these roles, including a peer support supervisor and two peer supports, through a combination of the City of Asheville’s opioid settlement funds and a Dogwood Health Trust grant. Filling those five positions would allow the firefighters currently working on the community program to return to fire suppression. The peer supports will allow the community responders to “provide wraparound services, track individuals and make sure to get the services that they need,” Crudup explains.

The AFD’s community responders typically operate from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., although they can go out as early as 7 a.m. and work as late as 11 p.m., Crudup says. “Sometimes they’ll transport people to [homeless shelter] beds. Occasionally, they will be asked to get people to the [Charles George VA Medical Center]. They also provide bus tickets to certain individuals who may need transportation to a shelter or maybe to a doctor’s appointment.”

Requests for the city’s community responders have been steady for the past year, Crudup says. The community can request them through the Asheville App.

“It’s not just serving the unsheltered population; it’s serving the businesses so that everybody can hopefully have a better way of living,” says AFD spokesperson Kelley Klope.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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One thought on “What would BID safety ambassadors bring to downtown?

  1. Judy Kay Patton

    As always Mtn Express does a complete and thorough job addressing the issues. The county is already providing support for APD in the weekends so asking the county to cover more in the city make it almost impossible to get an officer to rural areas timely manner. Especially at NIGHT! There is a large increase in stealing anything that isn’t nailed down. The money needs to be added to the program that can provide mental heath workers on the scene period. Escorts are just going to call 911 for OD and that’s not fast enough! I do really take issue with funding exemption for churches within city limits that do not already offer overnight care, a soup kitchen’s , a lunch meal or medical clinic. Those churches should pay the 9% tax. This would help funding and why not. It is disappointing to learn churches backing out of commitment to offer overnight stays for homeless because of pushback from members and neighbors This is just my opinion! I have avoided concerts, plays, dining out in the city over the past several years because of parking issues and lack of feeling safe. I do however Commend the Asheville Tourist for making the entire experience a complete blast. There were officers and volunteers everywhere and the transportation buggy for that very mountainous terrain. I be always loved the city . It’s beautiful and vibrant . I miss getting downtown and going to the symphony and ACT! Surely there is a way to make the city safer a find resources for the homeless that help us live together.

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