When, in August, City Hall announced its plan to launch a two-year, $893,000 “downtown ambassador” pilot program, some residents – us included –wondered whether such an initiative was even remotely necessary. The city pointed to similar programs in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla. Atlanta’s program, in which city employees ride around downtown on Segway human transporters and bicycles, helping tourists and locals find their way through its maze of one-way streets loaded with two-foot traffic, has run since 1996. (City documents note that Atlanta’s program “has experienced no lawsuits or incidences, nor negative publicity.”) But Orlando’s downtown is essentially Orange Avenue, give or take a few side streets. Who needs directions here?
It doesn’t help that the impetus for the program – officially an arm of the Downtown Development Board – came from developers looking for a little something extra to help them sell their vacant condos. It’s a marketing tool funded by taxpayers.
Regardless, the downtown ambassador program is now in a soft rollout. Ambassadors hit the streets Dec. 26. On Jan. 15, the mayor plans a public unveiling of the ambassadors, 15 part-time city employees who earn $10 an hour.
For five hours on Friday, Dec. 28, I became one of them. The city allowed me to ride along with a group of ambassadors to better understand the ins and outs of their foray into repurposing downtown – or really, to figure out exactly what the hell they were doing.
I even got to ride a Segway.
Ambassador team manager Rose Garlick greets me at the door to the Downtown Orlando Information Center on Church Street, the ambassadors’ headquarters, with a smile and an offer of coffee. She’s flustered by the media attention associated with this week’s rollout, and flinches when I jot down anything that could be taken out of context. We’re joined in her office by temporary ambassador supervisor Kirk Hartlage, a former Watermark staff writer who assists Garlick in media relations.
Garlick stresses that the $893,000 is meant to cover two years of operation, and will be augmented by community donations. For instance, Highwoods Properties donated the information center – 2,500 square feet of office space worth $186,000 over two years. WKMG Channel 6 will donate two flat-screen televisions. Orlando Regional Medical Center will give defibrillators.
The ambassadors endured two weeks of training before the rollout, which included instruction from the fire and police departments – each Segway has a radio that toggles between the two departments – ORMC, the Homeless Services Network, Orange County Regional History Center, Segway and hospitality representatives.
I ask about how the ambassadors deal with the homeless. “Treat them like you would anybody else,” she says. What of aggressive panhandlers? “Try to get the visitor away.”
She explains how developers demanded the program; they wanted a unique addition to their condo sales pitches. She adopts a “developer” voice and vamps, “Sell my condoooo.”
“We’re coming of age,” she says. Once people get to know what the program is really about, they’ll appreciate having “another set of eyes” out there. Then again, the ambassadors’ mission isn’t that defined. For instance, Church Street bars want to use them as a free security patrol, but Garlick doesn’t think that’s what the ambassadors – who trek in shifts until as late as 11 p.m. between Wednesday and Saturday nights – should be doing.
After a perfunctory tour of the contents of my Segway’s “saddlebags” – a first aid kit, a list of important addresses and a map, with a portable defibrillator and tourist pamphlets to come in the near future – Hartlage teaches me how to board my vehicle. A gyroscope at the base will measure my balance, and I’ll control my direction and speed by shifting my body weight.
“Practice your best posture,” he says.
Within minutes I’m zipping around the office-front courtyard – with a helmet on; safety first – looking out for unexpected bumps in the pavement. Somebody’s already been hurt, I’m told, although no details are forthcoming. One acorn in your path and you’re flat on your face.
I’ve been assigned to join Team A with Hartlage and Stephanie Johnson. The ambassadors operate each eight-hour shift with two teams monitoring two paths: one up and down Orange Avenue, the other around a perimeter that’s bordered by Summerlin Avenue, Parramore Avenue, Anderson Street and Amelia Street. We’re on the Orange Avenue route.
Time to spread some goodwill.
Near Church Street, Johnson teaches me the art of the “display.” You hold your left hand out, shift your right hip, and twirl around while affecting a sullen model face.
“I didn’t realize the streets were so wet at this hour,” Hartlage says.
“I think they wash them,” I reply.
We pull off into a near-empty parking lot adjacent to the Old Southern Bank building, and I practice my moves some more. I ask Johnson, 22, if she’s afraid of trouble on the job.
“I am,” she says. “Being so little, all it takes is a bump to knock this thing over.”
“My biggest fear, honestly, is probably running over somebody’s foot … on accident,” Hartlage adds.
A radio call comes in from Team B: “All is well at Lake Eola.”
“That’s how we like it,” responds Hartlage. “All well.”
At the Robinson Street and Orange Avenue intersection, Johnson’s reflexive kindness has gotten the best of her. “Happy New Year,” she says to a scruffy man on a bicycle.
“It’s not going to be a Happy New Year if I don’t find work. It’s been three years,” he says.
Another transient walks by and throws a glass bottle against a wall across the street. “Should we follow him?” Johnson asks.
We agree that he seems to know where he’s going.
After a quick break at headquarters, we swap routes with Team B so that I can see the full downtown picture. Heading east on Church Street, we’re finally approached – if only in a holler from across the street – with a query.
“Which way’s the tag office?”
Hartlage points the guy across the street, and we carry on with our sojourn into condo
country, where a construction worker approaches to ask, “Isn’t that what the president fell off of?”
“Interesting fact,” a radio call comes in from Team B. “The Social Security office has no assigned parking for the public.”
A woman on a Vespa pulls up next to us outside the Wachovia building near Wall Street. “You Democrats?” she asks.
A vague nodding of heads in response. “Why?”
“Well, you obviously care about the environment.”
Meanwhile, a man with a cleft palate and a beard quizzes us on the operations of the Segway’s gyroscope.
We’re at headquarters again, this time to receive the delivery of the ambassadors’ uniform raincoats. They’re thin and porous windbreakers, and don’t appear to repel water very well. There is some dissatisfaction.
We’ve made our way to Parramore Avenue after a few “display” twirls at the base of Amway Arena’s steps. While previous buzzes through residential and commercial downtown Orlando prompted only mild interest and a few commuter eye-rolls, the mood here is decidedly different. In effect, we’re blocking the sidewalks with our $6,800 electric vehicles, and these are sidewalks that people actually use. Johnson’s calls of “Good morning!” are falling on deaf ears.
“What’s this all about?” a disgruntled man asks, looking Johnson up and down.
“Well, we’re here to help people if they’re lost, or answer any questions that people might have,” she answers.
He throws us an angry look, then turns his back and saunters in front of us at a snail’s pace, forcing us to stop. We stay put for a moment until the sidewalk clears.
A taxi drives by and the driver yells out his window, “You’ve got the best job in town!”
We pop into Johnson’s Diner, because, Hartlage says, building bridges with the community is part of the job. The ambassadors had a lunch here during training, and the restaurant’s staff – while apparently unimpressed – are cordial, and at least feign interest. Outside, some older men laugh at our Segways.
We almost have an actual moment when we spot somebody illegally panhandling on Church Street, until closer inspection reveals that said panhandler is crouching in a faintly painted “blue box.”
Lunchtime, and my shift and the requisite apologies for “nothing happening” are through. Walking back toward the Weekly office, I get a phone call from co-worker Jeffrey Billman reporting a real live event for the downtown ambassadors to tackle: There is, he says, a pack of wild dogs traversing Livingston Street, and the crew should get down there right away.
Sure enough, a phone call from Hartlage follows, detailing how they had to corner three wayward dogs near Wall Street and radio for police assistance. The police arrived in a dune buggy and enlisted the ambassadors to help them lead the dogs down to the safety of Lake Lucerne. Unfortunately, the sidewalk ends at Anderson Street, so the ambassadors had to stop there.
“I wish you had been there,” says Hartlage.