On a recent day, men in bright neon green shirts rinsed the sidewalk in front of Uno Pizzeria & Grill on North Main Street in downtown Dayton.
Across the road, another swept the curb and picked up discarded cigarette butts. Blocks away, a man wearing that same color cruised the street on a bicycle looking for people in need of assistance.
Downtown Dayton Ambassadors are now a familiar sight to anyone who spends time in downtown Dayton, and the program is being credited for helping the urban core compete for visitors, workers and residents.
The ambassador program launched in the Central Business District in 2006. Members of the 10-person team patrol the area seven days a week, 362 days a year.
They pick up trash, eliminate weeds, remove graffiti, wash sidewalks, give directions, provide escorts, report problems to police and lend a helping hand whenever needed.
“I’ve seen them do everything, because I stand in this window all day, and they never stop,” said Frank Graci, the owner of the Original Flying Pizza, which has a location at 223 N. Main St. “When it’s cold out, they are still out there. When it’s hot out, they are still out there.”
Ambassadors have seen a little bit of everything in a district that welcomes 6 million visitors each year.
They assisted a pregnant woman who went into labor.
They have helped parents locate children who wandered away. They helped locate a woman with Alzheimer’s who went missing.
Delwyn Fontroy, a safety ambassador, once chased down a transit bus after a woman left her purse on the seat.
“I jumped on my bike, went down there and stopped the bus,” he said.
The Central Business District would look very different if the ambassadors were not around to clean it every day, according to local business owners.
Last year, ambassadors collected more than 107,000 pounds of trash and removed more than 1,300 pieces of graffiti, according to data from the Downtown Dayton Partnership, which contracts with an agency called Block by Block, which hires the ambassadors.
“Not only do they do a good job of keeping it clean, they take pride in the downtown community,” said Dayton police Major David Wolford, with the Central Patrol Operations Division.
Wolford said ambassadors will soon be issued police radios so they can communicate directly with officers when needed. He said ambassadors work closely with police to resolve issues and disturbances and identify troublemakers.
Ambassadors helped police capture a cell phone thief after following him and reporting his location to officers, Wolford said.
“We feel they are part of the Dayton Police Department,” he said.
The Central Business District is the economic and business center of the city, and attracting investment and retaining companies requires providing a safe and clean environment, said Sandra Gudorf, the president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership.
The ambassadors help combat the perception that downtown can be dangerous, she said.
“People have to feel comfortable and they have to feel safe,” Gudorf said. “We know we are making progress, but we need to keep chipping away at this notion that downtown’s not safe.”
The ambassador program is paid for through a special improvement district fund that is voted on by owners of downtown property.
About 90 percent of downtown businesses said the ambassadors made downtown cleaner, according to the partnership’s annual survey. About 62 percent said ambassadors made downtown safer.
“I like to see them around on the bikes, with their eyes on the street,” said Harvey Lehrner, owner of Don’s Pawn Shop on E. Third Street.
On most work days, ambassador Stuart Combs is on a bike, searching for people in need of directions or other assistance as well as problems to report.
But Thursday afternoon, Combs was armed with a trash barrel, radio and three spray bottles.
One bottle is for graffiti removal. Another contains cleaning fluid. And one is full of a weed-killing mixture.
Combs on Thursday swept curb lines, cleaned dirty street surfaces and scrapped sticky substances off public property.
As he worked, he smiled and exchanged pleasantries with passing pedestrians.
Though it’s a dirty job, Combs said it has some major perks. He said helping people out is rewarding. Friendliness and hospitality are essential traits for ambassadors, officials said.
“Some days, the hardest part I think is going home,” Combs said.
Ambassadors get dirty. They also get lots of sun and exercise.
Ambassadors must walk and ride the streets in the heat and cold. Those who ride a bike can travel as many as 20 miles in a day. On foot, they can walk more than 15 miles in a shift.
They also must wear protective gear when handling broken bottles, needles, bird droppings and the other hazards and ickiness that show up in an urban area.
On Thursday, ambassadors assisted a disabled man who was disoriented. Ambassadors talked with him to make sure he was OK and contacted police and his nursing home.
“A lot of times, the conversations that we have with law enforcement is for quality-of-life checks,” said Tina Gilley, an ambassador and operations manager with Block by Block.