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Downtown Rapid City

People walk in downtown Rapid City on Friday evening.

Rapid City residents and tourists will soon see friendly faces in bright red shirts in the downtown, ready to hand out maps and give directions, suggest restaurants and tourist attractions, and report crime to police. 

The white lettering on the shirts says "Downtown Ambassador" as they're part of the new Rapid City ambassadors program. 

"They'll be the friendliest person you see downtown. They'll be the person who can help you out with a map or pamphlet, help you decide on dinner, and let you know what kind of events are going on in Main Street Square," said Mayor Steve Allender. "It's primarily customer service, which also includes helping people feel safe while they're shopping."

The ambassadors will hit the streets Sunday, June 2, through September from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to Allender and the job description. They'll be expected to be friendly and helpful to tourists, "serve as additional eyes and ears" for the police and fire departments, and visit businesses, the description says. Ambassadors must be outgoing and will be trained by police and educated about Rapid City shopping, dining and tourist attractions.

Allender said he was first exposed to downtown ambassador programs when he visited Atlanta and an ambassador in a bright yellow vest gave him advice on where to eat and where not to go. 

"It signaled to me that the city of Atlanta was aware of how visitors may feel when they come downtown," he said. 

He said local businesses and tourism groups have been interested in a program in Rapid City for a few years and city staff has been researching how other cities run their programs. 

The Rapid City ambassador program mirrors others around the county in that the employees are hired by a tourism or business group, rather than the city, and focus on helping visitors and the police.

While Rapid city ambassadors will stick to walking around the city, ambassadors in other cities travel by bicycle or Segway. Some, such as those in Grand Rapids, Michigan, receive specialized training in delivering physical and mental health first aid, treating drug overdoses and recognizing sex trafficking. 

Allender said the downtown area can have "unruly behavior, intoxicated people, panhandling, other types of things going on" and that makes some people feel uncomfortable. 

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He said the ambassadors serve as an alternative to adding more police officers downtown, which is expensive, takes them away from other duties and can makes people think the city is unsafe. 

"Police have plenty to do" and the ambassadors are "definitely not police officers," Allender said.

Lt. Cathy Bock said the ambassadors won't be trained to intervene in crime but will learn how to be good witnesses and feel comfortable calling the police. Both she and Allender said ambassadors can be helpful since tourists or residents on their way to work or an errand may not want to take time to report a crime.

Bock said the ambassadors will get to know officers assigned to the downtown area and those in the quality of life unit, which connects people with social services. 

When asked about the possibility of an unnecessary 911 call leading to escalation and if ambassadors should be trained in when it's inappropriate to call police, Bock said officers are trained in de-escalation. She also said that just because an officer shows up doesn't mean someone will be arrested, instead they may provide resources.

"The whole goal is to get them help and be a good person in society," Bock said.

The ambassador program was unanimously approved May 14 by the board of the Business Improvement District, a taxing district in downtown Rapid City that uses funds to improve the area, Allender said.

The district will contribute $20,000 while Visit Rapid City and the city will each contribute another $2,000. Destination Rapid City will manage the program and is considering hiring four ambassadors with one or two working at a time.

Ambassadors must be at least 18-years-old, have a minimum of a G.E.D. education, and be able to walk three to five miles per day, the job description says. They'll be paid $12 an hour and must commit to at least 20 hours per week. To apply, send your resume to Cassandra@mainstreetsquarercc.com or mail it to Destination Rapid City/Main Street Square at 512 Main Street, #980 in Rapid City, SD 57701. 

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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