Superheroes on the streets

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July 5, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

// The DID Ambassadors 
mark one year of heroics, 
both large and small //

They could be characters out of an old DC Comics title. Clad in distinctive neon uniforms and wielding an arsenal of exotic tools, they prowl the streets of Downtown, looking to bust both grime and crime.

They blast sidewalks with pressure washers. They clear garbage with slow creeping vacuum vehicles. They rove around in green-shielded Segways, greeting visitors, offering friendly assistance and keeping an eye out for trouble. They are the Clean and Safe Ambassadors. And this month marks their first year of service on the streets.

The ambassadors are the cheerful face of the Downtown Improvement District (DID), a nonprofit organization dedicated to boosting vibrancy in the city’s core. Though the DID was officially formed in January 2009, its services in the public realm did not begin until July 1 of that year.

Twelve months later, the program is trotting out an impressive set of statistics: 629,000 pounds of garbage removed from city streets; more than 5,000 graffiti tags eliminated; a whopping 50,000 pedestrian assists, recommendations and escorts.

But the true marker of success, according to DID Chief Operating Officer Sarah Harris, is a pair of 4-inch thick binders kept at the DID’s Elliot Park offices. These “Pride Books,” as the ambassadors call them, hold every piece of feedback that ambassadors have received since the program’s launch.

The thousands of comments are almost unanimously enthusiastic. Pedestrians have witnessed ambassadors providing umbrella escorts to women pushing strollers, bandaging the elbow of an elderly man who had fallen and sweeping up the shards of a shattered bus station.

“It’s a perception issue, right?” says Harris. Hard statistics, which the DID tracks relentlessly, work great for PowerPoint presentations. But, she argues, “a lot of the perception is the reality of whether or not the District is doing well.”

The perception of life in the core of the city has not always been a positive one. In October 2007, the Downtown Council conducted a survey of Downtown employees, asking them how they felt about having to come Downtown for work.

“It told a pretty compelling story that people didn’t feel that Downtown was clean enough or that Downtown was safe at all times,” said Harris.

Even some of the ambassadors admit to feeling an initial unease.

David E., one of the very first of the 60 to 70 ambassadors to be hired last summer, said he “was a little apprehensive about taking the job.” He had little experience Downtown, and he was concerned about having to patrol by himself late into the evening.

But now, he says, he’s eager to show off the city to his friends, bringing them to the farmers market and the Holidazzle Parade.

Brenda G., a former flight attendant who brings her perkiness to the ambassador role, says she likes to bring her children Downtown, something she would not have considered doing before she started the job.

Harris hopes a similar change of perception will occur among those working Downtown.

In October of 2009, only three months after the ambassadors had first hit the streets, the Downtown Council repeated its survey. Results showed that employees felt cleanliness had improved by 25 percent and that safety had improved by 14 percent.

An identical survey will be conducted in October 2010.

The ambassador program is paid for by Downtown businesses that fall in the DID’s 120-block zone, which stretches from 2nd Street on the north end to Grant Street on the south.

Businesses pay a fee based on their lineal frontage and gross building area, which is then pro-rated based on their proximity to pedestrian heavy areas. Commercial property owners cannot opt out of the program. But a certain percentage of them can veto it. Without a successful re-petitioning, the DID is scheduled to sunset in 2014.

Dan Manny, COO of Haskell’s, a liquor store on 9th Street South, says the program is well-worth paying for. “It’s a cleaner and friendlier Downtown,” he says. “I think the consumer feels better about coming Downtown.”

Still, the ambassador program aims to do more than simply impress with smiles and cleanly swept sidewalks. David E. tells an anecdote about running into a homeless person fresh off a bus from Milwaukee. David gave the man an umbrella escort to Catholic Charities for some food, carrying the man’s giant pack on his own back.

According to the DID, ambassadors have saved 17 lives, including helping a choking baby and responding to a man who suffered a heart attack on Nicollet Mall.

“The program is a success when I see just that one line [of data],” Harris said.  

Looking forward, the DID will this year kick-off a 20-year greening strategy that will spread perennials and native species throughout Downtown. Lush planters have already showed up on the Hennepin/1st avenues loop, on Nicollet Mall and on 5th, 6th and 7th streets.

In addition, 2010 will witness an increased monitoring of public security cameras and of Radiolink, a radio system that links ambassadors to the police and to private security forces. At a command center in the 1st Precinct, ambassadors will continue surveillance past bar-close time, until 2:30 to 3 a.m. Previously, monitoring had stopped 
at 11 p.m.

Another new DID program is the Downtown 100, a collaboration with the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County focused on getting the 100 most chronic offenders off of the streets. The Downtown 100 is an outgrowth of an initiative called Courtwatch, which fosters teamwork between city and county prosecutors, the police and community stakeholders. Courtwatch won an award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police in the fall of 2009.

Finally, the Give More Change program will educate pedestrians on how to interact with panhandlers, and a new emergency planning committee will develop a system of readiness in case of emergency events.

As far as the ambassadors are concerned, the new programs are just enhancements of what they already do: help out.

“It’s great just being able to show compassion,” says David E. “It’s just really soulful stuff.”

By the numbers

Clean Ambassador statistics, July 2009 through April 2010

Pounds of trash removed

Graffiti tags removed

City blocks pressure washed

Pounds of de-icer used


Safe Ambassadors statistics, July 2009 through April 2010

Number of pedestrian assists, recommendations and escorts


Hours of camera and 
radio monitoring

Lives saved

Source: Downtown 
Improvement District