The new team charged with keeping Chattanooga's central city clean, safe and friendly has spent the last six weeks getting to know the people and places they serve, as well as scrubbing, mulching or sweeping nearly every surface they encounter.
"This job is all the things I love to do," said Ashland Fitten, one of 15 ambassadors who work for the Downtown Chattanooga Alliance. "Landscaping, helping people in the community, outreach."
The alliance, initially called the Downtown Chattanooga Business Improvement District, was established by city ordinance in July 2019. The contentious process prompted lawsuits and objections by business owners included in the district.
Properties within the roughly 50-block zone pay special assessment fees of about $1 million a year collectively to fund improvements to the central city to make the area cleaner and safer, as well as to fund enhanced beautification and other special projects.
Keeli Crewe, the owner of Area 61, an art gallery on Broad Street, was an early opponent of the creation of the district. The fees her landlord will have to pay will be passed on to her, she said, and she hadn't figured those costs into her move to Broad Street in December 2019.
"My landlord has not billed me for my fee yet, but they will," she said. "My attitude is now optimistic that the money will be used for safety and cleanliness, but my hesitation in not loving it still is that it may block small businesses from entering into that market."
Leaders of the district are also still grappling with how to resolve requests by four nonprofit organizations that have asked to be exempted from paying the fees inside the district.
The board of directors for the downtown alliance voted in February not to grant the fee exemptions to Second Presbyterian on Pine Street, St. Paul's Episcopal Church on West Seventh Street, the United Way on Market Street, and the YMCA on West Sixth Street. Total annual fees from those four entities would come to $34,000
The board elected later that same month to reopen the conversation about the exemptions, and they have been engaged in back-and-forth negotiations about how to resolve the requests.
"My sense is we're still waiting to get everybody together," said Steve Hunt, chairman of the board of the alliance, in a meeting Wednesday.
Last summer, siblings Pam Rymer O'Dwyer, Charles D. Paty, Kem Alexander, Ralph Paty, Marion Gaye Paty Wade and fellow property owner William Wise filed a lawsuit against the city that claimed the ordinance establishing the district violated state statute.
The suit was unsuccessful in stopping the creation of the district, and Charles Paty said his family paid nearly $8,000 in fees this year for their Patten Parkway property. The fees added about 15% to their property tax bill, he said.
"Like any business person or landowner, we did have to pass the cost on to the people who rent from us," said Paty, whose family has eight tenants along Patten Parkway. "We didn't want to do that, and we didn't pass the entire cost on, but we had to do some."
Though he hasn't met anyone from the Downtown Chattanooga Alliance, the new team has done some work to clean up an alley and attempted to remove some graffiti around his property, Paty said.
"That's nice, but I can and I have hired people to do that in the past, and it cost me a couple hundred dollars," he said.
Outreach to property owners, tenants and residents of the area is a top priority — including building relationships with those who opposed the creation of the district, said Steve Brookes, the director of the alliance who moved here from Boston in April.
The Downtown Chattanooga Alliance ambassador team
* Starting pay for ambassadors is $13 an hour
* They become eligible for benefits after 90 days
* 92% of the team is from Chattanooga
* 46% lost a previous job because of the pandemic
* 66% Black
* 34% White
* 13% Veterans
"We're getting out there, looking at that property to see what we can do to really show that property owner that we're here to support them," Brookes said. "We've met with them and had ongoing discussions. It's been very positive."
Wearing bright orange caps and shirts branded with the Downtown Chattanooga Alliance logo, shifts of three to four ambassadors are on the streets from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday. The team's tasks run the gamut from helping visitors find their way around the city to scraping and painting trash cans and removing graffiti.
"This is one of our next projects," Brookes said Tuesday, pointing out spray paint on the side of the old Buehler's Market building on Market Street.
Fitten said the work as a member of the ambassador team is rewarding on a host of levels. As she has gotten to know people in the district, she's become someone they recognize even when she isn't wearing the signature orange, said Fitten, who was a stay-at-home mom for 2 years, running online storefronts selling natural health and beauty products before she joined the team.
"Even when I'm off work, people remember who I am, and they appreciate what we do," she said. "We're really spreading positivity down here."
Randi Haynes, the team lead for the group, worked for EarthFare for five years, starting as a part-time cashier at the store on Gunbarrel Road and working her way up to manager of the grocery store in Hixson. In February, EarthFare filed for bankruptcy. In March, Haynes lost her job. She spent several months looking before she found her place leading the ambassador team, Haynes said. "It's been wonderful," she said.
One critical element of the work is "learning who owns what," Brookes said. The city's Public Works Department is a key partner, as are resources for people experiencing homelessness.
Brookes recently worked with the Chattanooga Police Department to help a homeless man he'd met in the district who wanted to get to Ohio to live with his sister.
"I worked with the CPD to make sure he was clear to leave town, that he didn't have any legal issues, and I had to make sure his sister would receive him," Brookes said. "Randi got him a bunch of food for the ride on Greyhound back to Ohio, and two days later I confirmed that he'd made it to his sister."
For the city, having the ambassador team on the ground in the central city is a huge help, said Ricky Coulston, director of Citywide Services. He has just three employees who work everything from the North Shore to 20th Street.
"They can get the little things that we're maybe not able to take care of all the time," Coulston said. "It's definitely helpful to us."
Contact Mary Fortune at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter @maryfortune.
How BID fees are calculated
To fund the district’s services, commercial and nonprofit landowners in the district will pay an annual assessment of 9 cents per square foot, of either the lot or building size, whichever is greater, plus $4.95 per linear foot of lot frontage. Residential property owners with townhouses or condominiums would pay a flat annual fee of $150 per unit.