If you live, work or play in Downtown Wilmington, you’ve seen them: the Downtown Ambassadors. They’re the ones wearing the bright gold polos (or jackets depending on the time of the year) and affable smiles.
Yet even while they’ve been a fixture on the streets of downtown’s business district for some two decades now, many might still be wondering who they are and what services are they providing to the downtown landscape?
These ambassadors work under the auspices of Downtown Visions, a nonprofit entity created in 1994 to manage the Business Improvement District (BID) of Downtown Wilmington, a 70-block area consisting of 700 commercial buildings and some 550 street- level independent businesses.
Property owners within the BID pay an assessment in addition to their property taxes to fund the privately operated cleaning, security and marketing services. These services supplement those provided by the City of Wilmington. BIDs have been shown to decrease crime and promote retail activity. Cleaner and safer streets aid in the process.
Wilmington’s BID is growing and expanding, as it reflects the changes afoot in the Downtown area. In 2017, the BID was expanded to include the 800 block of Washington Street, and even the block-long Wollaston Street that runs it. It also includes the Wilmington Hospital campus.
“We like to say it runs from river to river, from Walnut to Washington, although it’s not really rectangular,” said DTV Deputy Director Michael Maggitti. “But it’s easy for people to remember.”
You can think of Downtown Visions as a kind of on-street concierge. “We want to create an environment that is clean, safe and welcoming as well as one that is conducive to business,” said Maggitti. “That’s what a BID is.”
Indeed, maintaining a clean and orderly environment is a key component in DTV’s plan for the continued revitalization of Downtown Wilmington. Each month, the organization’s Cleaning Ambassadors remove 11.5 tons of rubbish and debris from the streets of the BID and about nine graffiti tags. The team also provides seasonal power washing, gum busting and leaf removal within the BID. As they work, the Cleaning Ambassadors discover and report to City of Wilmington officials the need for repairs and replacements of municipal signage, sidewalks, streetlamps and damage to buildings.
The Cleaning Ambassadors extend their work beyond the BID under the auspices of Clean and Safe Services, DTV’s for-profit subsidiary. The team collects trash at 24 bus stops in Downtown Wilmington and removes graffiti from buildings and sidewalks throughout the city. Clean and Safe Services also provides daily trash removal for restaurants, a service not offered by larger haulers. Maggitti says it’s a win-win for small business and the DTV.
“This is one of the best all-time things we do,” he said. “It ties in with our Main Street Program and it really is a great opportunity for small business. Plus it cuts down on the critter population.”
Safety Ambassadors support the Wilmington Police Department by promoting and increasing safety in the BID and beyond. In 2017, Safety Ambassadors performed 187, 544 property checks, provided 7, 587 escorts and patrolled 1, 479 events.
Like the Cleaning Ambassadors, they’re on the street seven days a week 361 days a year. As the population of Wilmington has increased, so has the number of hours worked by the Safety Ambassadors. Teams take to the streets of the BID at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. on weekends. They remain until 2 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and until midnight the other days of the week.
“We see a lot more pedestrian traffic early at the coffee shops and at the gyms and jogging than we did just a couple of years ago when it was mainly delivery people,” said Maggitti.
DTV’s 32 Safety Ambassadors are equipped with two-way radios and computer tablets that allow them to report problems to law enforcement in real time. Moreover, they monitor neighborhood cameras throughout the city under a contract between the City of Wilmington and DTV’s Clean & Safe Services subsidiary.
All Safety Ambassadors must undergo a two-week comprehensive training program before they take to the streets. Most of the training is done by the DTV but the Wilmington Police Department, the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Central YMCA also participate.
“We want our folks to be a wealth of information about what’s going on in and near downtown, so rather than just tell them about it, we want them to see it,” said Maggitti.
Maggitti admits that now that we’re all carrying smart phones, the Ambassadors don’t get asked for directions nearly as much as they used to. Still, they can offer valuable information on finding a bus stop or where to get a good cup of coffee or a good meal. Plus they help folks who are just looking a little bit lost.
“If you’re in a strange city, it really helps to have a friendly face to offer assistance,” he said. “We take the term ‘ambassador’ very seriously.”
Like the Cleaning Ambassadors, the Safety Ambassadors are on the job seven days a week, 361 days a year. Maggitti says that both teams are made up of hard-working dedicated individuals and that turnover is low. Many of the Safety Ambassadors are retirees from other professions. They earn about $10.50 an hour.
Maggitti notes that some of the hardest working staffers are former homeless persons who have gone through programs like the Sunday Breakfast Mission, Friendship House or the Salvation Army.
Maggitti says that about a quarter of the Safety Ambassadors are women but that there is only one female Cleaning Ambassador.
“I wish there were more,” he said. “These are not strenuous jobs but they do require a lot of walking.”
That makes it a good fit for Safety Ambassador Wayne Davis, who prefers to be outdoors rather than inside an office. “I think if I had to work in one of those tall office buildings I’d just fall asleep,” said the 27-year-old who has been a supervisor for the past five years. “Plus I like working with people.”
Davis says his role has definitely increased since more people are living downtown. “We definitely have to be more visible,” he said. “The cops can’t take care of everything.”
Most of the infractions he deals with are people who park on the wrong side of the street and panhandling or loitering by the homeless or by persons banned from the area.
“We just ask them to move on and most of the time, they do,” he said. “But when they don’t, we call the police.”
Maggitti says that Safety Ambassadors are given pepper spray for their own protection but the guiding principle is to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
“If we see someone who’s panhandling, we really try to direct them to places around that are open seven days a week where they can get out of the weather, in addition to what the state offers,” he said. “We treat people with respect no matter who they are and that goes a long way.”
Wilmington is just one of more than 1,000 cities nationwide that have designated BID’s with clean-and-safe programs. So, what makes Wilmington’s program different?
“I think it’s the Main Street Program, with its focus on small business and historical preservation,” said Maggitti. “That takes the BID a step further.”
Downtown Wilmington Main Street is an initiative of The National Trust for Historical Preservation which seeks to enhance the BID with revitalization efforts tailored to local conditions.
DTV assists small businesses with façade improvements and gaining access to funds to help them grow. “There’s a ton of resources out there if you know where to look,” said Maggitti. “There is no job in the world harder than running a small business. They don’t have a lot of time or a huge staff, so when they need help, they need it quick.”
Since 2010, DTV’s Main Street Program has completed some 69 building projects and awarded approximately $600,000 in grants toward the restoration of buildings in Downtown Wilmington. These projects included the removal of 28 exterior security grates, 57 new business signs or awnings, the complete restoration of 51facades, the exterior painting and lighting of entire blocks of buildings.
“What Downtown Visions has done with the façade program is just as significant as what it has done with the clean-and-safe program,” said Mark Fields, executive director of The Grand Opera House, which as able to upgrade to programmable exterior LED lighting thanks to a grant from DTV.
This year DTV will host its signature Farmers’ Market for the 17th year. The event is in full swing for 26 weeks from May to October, featuring live music, food and vendors hawking everything from produce to arts and crafts and personal care items. The market brings in about $50,000 each year, according to DTV Marketing Manager Tucker Casey.
Since 2014, DTV has sponsored the annual Ladybug Musical Festival, a Downtown music celebration of female musicians.
DTV also assists and promotes many other important events such as the annual Wilmington Grand Prix, Cinco de Mayo, the Jaycees Annual Christmas Parade, Small Business Saturday and various other grand openings and ribbon cuttings.
“It’s pretty remarkable what we do,” said Maggitti who joined DTV eleven year ago after a career in law enforcement with the Wilmington Police Department. “I wish I could take credit for it but it was up and running when I came.”