(L-R) Leanna, Narell, Clarissa, and Izzy (One not pictured), K-Town Connect Downtown Ambassadors, Knoxville, June 2022
K-Town Connect, the program sponsored by Visit Knoxville and managed by Block by Block has served downtown’s central business improvement district (roughly downtown from the river to the tracks, from the coliseum to the World’s Fair Park) since April 2022. Tasked with a wide range of responsibilities, the group has had a very tangible impact on the downtown area. That impact resulted in an expansion of coverage hours and now an expansion of territory to include the area around Cumberland Avenue.
Kim Bumpas, President of Visit Knoxville said, “We have seen the positive representation of our destination throughout the downtown area with the K-Town Connect ambassadors. The success of the program will be amplified by this extension, helping locals and visitors alike to experience a friendly, clean, and safe campus and beyond.”
The group, easily recognized by their green shirts, has offered a helping hand to tourists and residents alike. They’ve cleaned the streets, worked with businesses, and integrated themselves into the daily life of our homeless population, to everyone’s benefit. They share information, extend hospitality, and discourage behaviors antithetical to hospitality and business, while connect those who are willing to the help they need.
Over the life of the program (April 15, 2022, through September 1, 2023), Ambassadors have accomplished the following throughout downtown Knoxville:
6,408 Business contacts – This is an interaction between Ambassadors and businesses within the district for establishing continuous communication channels.
47,377 Hospitality Assistance –This is an Ambassador’s one-on-one interaction with a person(s) to aid in completing a task. This includes, but is not limited to, helping understand parking meters, providing requested feedback for things to do downtown, opening a door for someone whose hands are full, etc.
8,899 Scooter Relocation – Scooters often are parked on the sidewalk blocking pedestrians; Ambassadors simply pick up and relocate the scooters to a location not blocking pedestrian walk paths.
44,279 Litter Collection – Ambassadors naturally pick up larger litter items when completing their walk paths around the district.
The extension to the Cumberland Avenue area (not on campus, but beside it) should benefit, students, families, University employees, visitors and area businesses. Both city and county mayors and University leadership have embraced the move.
The program has been managed by Narell Haigler from the beginning and his leadership will be extended over the new territory. I spoke with Narell to get an update on the program and his thoughts on the expansion. He described the program as “amplifying the visible presence of a smiling face.” The message to everyone is “It’s a friendly face and a friendly place.”
I started by asking him about the numbers listed above. I didn’t see a mention of their work with the homeless population and I think their impact may be the greatest in that arena. I’ve watched them engaging homeless individuals in a helpful manner, both in the midst of a crisis and in calmer moments. He said they are not included in the above numbers and that the types of contacts with the unhoused population include a range from simple “hellos” to referrals of a wide sort.
He said the consistency of their presence has made a difference for both the homeless as well as for businesses. Everyone knows they are going to come by. He said the number of excuses (why they aren’t getting help, etc.) they hear from the homeless population has dropped because of the continuing conversation. He also feels the downtown population of homeless individuals has dropped as those who don’t want help — and contact — moves on. They’ve also been able to help business cope with the issues presented by the homeless population.
He said much of their work isn’t seen or publicized. He said, as a baseline, they show sympathy and concern, communicating a message that “whatever bad place you are in, you don’t have to stay there.” He said they have helped many individuals get benefits they had previously been unable to secure, like Social Security and Disability Benefits. For those who aren’t ready for help, they encourage them to move along.
As the numbers above demonstrate, however, their work extends to every area of making downtown a more welcoming, safer and cleaner environment. Even something as simple as moving a scooter out of the way, picking up trash, and welcoming visitors, makes an impression likely to help visitors remember their experience in Knoxville just a bit more positively and perhaps lead them to return.
The program has expanded from five ambassadors (plus Narell, who does the same work) to eleven in its current incarnation. Hours were extended starting last April, with Cumberland Avenue being included starting last week. On Cumberland Avenue, you’ll find them on duty from 11:00 am to 7:30 pm on Sundays, Monday from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm, and Tuesday through Saturday from 7:00 am to 11:30 pm. Downtown, two full shifts operate most days. Monday and Tuesday coverage extends from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm, with Wednesday through Sunday coverage extending from 7:00 am to 11:30 pm.
If you see a situation which might benefit from the attention of an ambassador (as opposed to the police, you can contact them at 865-393-3219 (downtown) or 865-809-1780 (Cumberland Avenue).