City to test ambassadors program downtown

Security guards in bright yellow shirts will soon serve as guides for tourists and extra eyes for police in downtown Huntington Beach.

The Huntington Beach Police Department will launch a 12-week pilot program, Downtown Ambassadors, on July 14. Executive Event Services, a Yorba Linda security firm that the city has used during the U.S. Open of Surfing and Fourth of July celebrations, will staff the pilot effort with one security guard during the day and two at night.

Though the ambassadors cannot make arrests or issue citations, they will be trained to identify and report crimes to police via two-way radio.

"We're trying to link it so that you can't get into a bar if you get kicked out of another," Police Chief Robert Handy said. "So you can get monitored and followed out of the area [by an ambassador], or we'll know in advance that there's problems."

The Police Department, Huntington Beach Business Improvement District (BID), Visit Huntington Beach and 10 downtown bars are paying for the $30,000 program. Long Beach, Hermosa Beach and Phoenix employ similar programs.

"One of the bigger challenges we have is the perception of crime and safety downtown isn't really the reality," Handy said. "There's a lot of talk about the crime downtown and how bad it is, but crime is actually down in the area."

In 2013, 1,129 crimes downtown were reported, according to police records — an improvement over the 1,633 reported in 2012 and the 1,622 reported in 2011.

BID President Steve Daniel, who owns Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory on Main Street, said the area needs to improve its rowdy image.

"We've got to quit talking negatively about downtown," he said.

Additionally, Visit Huntington Beach will educate the ambassadors about downtown businesses and amenities so they can answer tourists' inquiries.

"Those ambassadors could be a resource to tell people where the great places are to eat, shop and visit," said Kelly Miller, president and CEO of the visitors' bureau.

Baja Sharkeez owner Ron Newman, a supporter of the pilot program, has witnessed the effectiveness of similar efforts in Hermosa Beach, where Sharkeez has a location.

"We're trying to improve the image of downtown Huntington Beach, bring better-quality businesses to the city as well as making the citizens feeling safer when they go downtown," Newman said. "These are all the things we need to do to make a better community."

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