It’s been three years since Williamsburg first started its Parking Ambassador program to improve parking downtown, and in that time the program has provided the city with a wealth of information.
But in recent months, it’s also been stunted.
The program started in 2017 as a way for the city to expand its parking enforcement and learn more about how parking can be improved. Ambassadors walk around downtown and in other areas of the city and engage with residents and tourists about discussions regarding parking.
The ambassadors will ask people if they were able to find parking, whether it was a difficult experience or even suggest better parking solutions to drivers. Some discussions also involve giving people directions or general information.
“They would meet people from all over the country, all over the world,” said Williamsburg Police Maj. Don Janderup. “It was truly that ambassador piece where you say, ‘Hey, welcome to Williamsburg, how can we help you?’”
There were three part-time Parking Ambassadors who took on a dual role as parking enforcement officers as well when the program first started. There are now four part-time ambassadors who are civilian status employees, meaning they don’t have any police powers, Janderup said.
However, ambassadors would help with parking enforcement such as providing tickets and monitoring timed parking locations. Janderup said this aspect is important because it helps provide more parking spots as people move in and out of various time-limited lots.
Janderup said the program has been successful not only in connecting with the community but gathering information about parking. Ambassadors gather information on daily activity sheets about what each of their contacts tells them and that feedback can then be used to improve parking in the city.
For example, he said ambassadors spoke with Colonial Williamsburg employees who felt nervous about walking to the employee parking lots in the dark so they would move their cars from various other lots every few hours. Janderup said now that the information is available, these different perspectives can be taken into consideration.
But due to the coronavirus pandemic, the nature of the program has changed.
“Things got worse as March went on and the one ambassador piece where they make contacts with people was just clearly uncomfortable then,” he said. “But not only uncomfortable but a concern for our employees’ safety as well. We didn’t want to increase any risk for anyone’s exposure.”
The Parking Ambassadors’ duties have shifted slightly as a result. They now help with sanitizing the Williamsburg Police Department, restocking office supplies and other small tasks.
Janderup said that change is also because there were very few people downtown to begin with because of the pandemic. During the past few months, the program has also relaxed certain parking restriction aspects, such as tickets for limited time parking areas, because there haven’t been many people coming to the area.
Ambassadors will still travel around the downtown area and different neighborhoods to monitor parking and engage with some residents, but they wear face coverings if anyone speaks to them.
They also try to social distance.
Janderup said the goal is to continue to program and grow it in the community, especially once the pandemic has passed. The past few years have shown that Parking Ambassadors provide a useful community education service that is valuable to both residents, tourists and the city.
“We’re getting information and we’re able to react to it,” he said. “I think a lot of it is just about education.”
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