For Cathy Roberts, working a few shifts as a downtown ambassador is an ideal fit.
“I get to walk and talk. It’s the perfect job for me,” Roberts said during a shift early in the tourist season. “I wear a Fitbit, and after some shifts, I put in 16,000 steps.”
Tim Walsworth, executive director of Durango’s Business Improvement District, said the program started with a principal mission: to help tourists with suggestions about where to eat, to offer information about festivals or other activities and to provide directions for those who were lost.
The ambassadors’ other mission is to serve as extra eyes and ears for downtown businesses and law enforcement, calling in any illegal behavior. The illicit activity could include riding a bicycle or skateboard on the sidewalk or aggressive panhandling.
Six ambassadors worked the first year and helped an estimated 3,500 people, Walsworth said. This summer, 10 ambassadors, who are paid $14 an hour, will be on Main Avenue and will spend a total of 950 hours downtown. In the future, if funding can be found, Walsworth would like to extend the program year-round with a focus on the busy tourist seasons.
Walsworth said ambassador shifts were not reduced because of the 416 Fire, and BID wanted to fund as many shifts as possible to field questions from tourists about impacts from the blaze.
‘Better than Siri’On the street, Roberts said helping tourists, not watching for troubling developments, accounts for more than 90 percent of her job.
“I’m way better than Siri,” she said, referring to Apple’s virtual assistant.
Her cue to ask tourists if they need help: the tech-neck profile and a gaze of befuddlement from a visitor staring into a smartphone.
She’ll ask a visitor if she can help clear up confusion, which she can normally handle off the top of her head, but she carries an iPad to find phone numbers and operating hours for more detailed inquiries.
“The most frequent question I get is confusion about the streets,” she said. “It takes a while for people to figure out the avenues and the streets are both numbered.”
Roberts usually starts her three-hour shift by walking up Main Avenue on one side of the street from the BID office to Buckley Park then down the other side to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train depot “to get a feel for how things are going.”
She’ll stop in at a few shops and ask how things are going.
“You’re not using Siri are you?” she asks a woman looking at her cellphone. “Anything I can help you with?”
“Oh, no. I’m just talking to my mom,” the tourist says.
Roberts, who is on a first-name basis with many panhandlers on Main, ran into a man, who dubs himself “Apache Joe,” who was searching for a missing duffel bag in the 1100 block. Roberts promised him she would keep her eye out for the missing black bag filled with cycling clothing and hygiene items.
This tourist season, BID had considered having ambassadors approach tourists after witnessing a donation to a panhandler. The idea was to inform tourists in a friendly manner about the Make It Count campaign, which directs donations from panhandlers to social service nonprofits that help deal with issues of mental health, poverty and homelessness. Donations can be deposited in some 50 boxes set up in downtown shops.
But the idea of approaching tourists has been dropped as too difficult to handle diplomatically, even for a group called the Ambassadors.
In practice, Roberts said she would have found it difficult to build up the courage to approach tourists for fear she might offend them.
“I wouldn’t want to make them think they had done something wrong. Everybody comes from different places, and everybody handles panhandling differently” she said.
Praise from business ownersBut what Roberts does do – keeping her eyes on the scene and offering helpful hints to the confused – has gained approval from merchants. Several business owners say they’ve noticed fewer problems with panhandlers this year and generally better behavior.
Karen Barger, an owner of Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, attributes a good chunk of the improving trend to the ambassadors.
“Last year, we had fights right in front of the restaurant. It literally cleared the restaurant out. It was horrible for business,” she said.
It’s important, she said, to have people downtown watching for developing issues.
“It’s gotten to the state that we’ve realized we need to help our businesses, and it’s unfortunate that it’s come to that, but we have to be safe, too,” she said.
Ambassadors have training sessions with the Durango Police Department and are trained to categorize fraught situations from the potentially problematic to the obvious emergency – labeling them as green, yellow and red:
Green: You are comfortable handling a potentially irksome situation.Yellow: Ambassadors judge whether they are comfortable intervening, and the situation doesn’t rise to the level of calling police. Usually, ambassadors call the nonemergency dispatch number, 385-2900, to keep law enforcement officers apprised of a developing issue.Red: You call 911 immediately for an emergency.Renee Bruch, a rookie ambassador, said the first thing Roberts taught her “is you have to pick your battles.”
“By and large, we are here for the happy people. They’re enjoying their visit, and we’re here to help,” Bruch said.
Benjamin Kinder, manager at Top That Frozen Yogurt, concurs with Barger that he’s seen fewer problems this year.
“Last year, we had someone swinging a sharp piece of metal right outside the store. We had to call the police. It was a safety issue,” he said.
Suited for the jobRoberts’ background makes her an ideal ambassador. While at Arvada High School in 1976, she joined the Colorado National Guard and served in the 220th Military Police based in Golden. A mannequin of her in uniform is on display in the military section at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum.
As a National Guard member, she helped during the Big Thompson Flood in 1976 when 12 to 14 inches of rain fell on the mountains surrounding Estes Park.
A lover of local history, she’s fond of telling tourists about the Jan. 9, 1906, shootout in the 900 block of Main Avenue in which Durango Marshal Jessie C. Stansel was eventually acquitted of the shooting and killing of La Plata County Sheriff William J. Thompson.
A little farther down Main, Roberts gets hit up for a donation: “Can you spare a dollar?” an optimistic panhandler asks.
“I’m sorry; I don’t bring money when I’m working,” Roberts responds.
“That’s what I say every time,” she said.