Ambassadors give downtown Pittsfield a leg up

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An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the level of sponsorship sought by Downtown Pittsfield Inc. in previous years. It also inaccurately reported the ambassadors’ shift schedule due to inaccurate information provided to The Eagle.

PITTSFIELD — "Ma'am, you don't have to pay for parking right now," Nolan Pratt called across North Street one recent evening, throwing his voice through cupped hands.

The woman on the other side turned and walked away from the parking kiosk, flashing Pratt a smile.

That's the kind of interaction that business leaders say makes Pratt and his fellow "downtown ambassadors" invaluable to the city. Ambassadors with the Downtown Pittsfield Inc. program educate visitors on downtown parking, and help them find shows and places to eat.

The summer program is several years old, Executive Director Cheryl Mirer said, but this is the first year the organization sought out additional sponsors. With their help, the nonprofit group expanded the summer staff from two to five part-time ambassadors.

The ambassadors travel in pairs, and their treks normally take them up and down North Street and part of South Street, from Berkshire Medical Center to the Colonial Theatre. Shifts run into the evening Wednesdays through Sundays.

"We're just here to brighten everyone's day," Pratt said, strolling along North Street during a recent shift.

"Welcome to Pittsfield. How can I help you?" read the neon orange T-shirts that he and his colleague, Amarie Starr, wore. And on the back side: "ambassador."

"How ya doin' today?" Pratt asked a passing man in scrubs who responded in kind.

Foot traffic is picking up for the summer, Pratt and Starr said. Visitors ask for advice about where to have dinner, about which stores are open and what there is to do downtown, they said.

"I guess our main objective is to help people have a positive experience on North Street," Pratt said,"so they come back."

But they also find themselves lending a hand to the locals, they said.

"We see a lot of homeless people," Starr said, and so she learned about the city's food pantries to point them in the right direction. She once saw a man hitting a woman, and now, she said, she tries to keep cards for the Elizabeth Freeman Center on hand.

And while they're at it, the ambassadors take time to demonstrate good behavior.

"A lot of people don't follow the traffic signals," Pratt said, pressing the button as he approached a crosswalk, where he stopped and awaited the proper signal. "We try to lead by example."

At one point during the walk Pratt asked a woman how she was and she started talking about a loved one dying of cancer.

"I don't even know why I'm telling you this," she said. "You seem like nice people."

Filling a gap

This summer's expansion grew out of survey results from last year, Mirer said.

"It was very overwhelmingly positive, that they in general like the program and wanted to see it continue," she said. "But there was an obvious disconnect, that people didn't necessarily know that it was happening."

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So, the organization reached out to the city to see if it would support a programmatic evolution. And it did.

Mayor Linda Tyer said she sees the investment as money spent on promoting Pittsfield's downtown. The downtown area sees a lot of visitors during the summer months, she said.

"The ambassadors are a friendly, welcoming presence, helping all visitors find their way around downtown Pittsfield," she said. "They provide information on parking, where to get ice cream and report back to us on matters that need to be addressed."

With a $5,000 match, Mirer said the city was the biggest sponsor, while Guardian Life, Lee Bank, Barrington Stage Company, the Berkshire Museum, Hotel on North and Berkshire Theatre Group pitched in toward a match this year.

According to Downtown Pittsfield Inc., current and past sponsors have been the City of Pittsfield, Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, NBT Bank, Lee Bank, Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Museum, Hotel on North, Berkshire Theatre Group and The Colonial, the Pittsfield Garden Tour and Greylock Federal Credit Union.

The program also received leftover money from the Pittsfield Garden Tour, which stopped running in 2016.

Also new to this summer's program is a series of orientations, during which ambassadors spend time learning the ropes at downtown hot spots. Mirer said the idea is for them to immerse themselves in all things downtown so that they can be "walking concierges" for the city.

"So, it's not just, `I can show you how to use the parking meter,' " she said.

The Pittsfield Police Department trains the ambassadors in public safety protocols, CPR and first aid, Mirer said. They walk the streets with police radios so they can alert first responders to any issues.

The program was created several years ago as a way to address a lack of police officers walking the downtown beat. Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn has said he doesn't have the staff to put officers on a walking beat for a full shift.

So, the program fills a gap, Mirer said.

"It falls under our quality of life strategy in our strategic plan," she said.

With the ambassadors downtown, staff at Barrington Stage often hear about how "a lovely young man in a bright orange shirt helped me figure out the parking meter," said Branden Huldeen, the organization's artistic producer.

Those shirts will, hopefully, help people notice the ambassadors more often, he said.

"My hope is that with this new look and having more ambassadors, that they'll be even more useful for tourists and citizens this year," he said. "Because now they know who they are and what they're there to do."

Laurie Tierney, owner at Hotel on North, said last year's ambassadors were friendly and proactive. She watched them help people with parking meters and quell unruly youths.

That's why she said she was keen on helping sponsor this year's program.

"They were worth every penny, and so I wanted them to come back," she said.

Most of the ambassadors' time is spent helping with parking kiosks, she said — "it's still an anxiety-inducing predicament for people" — and their presence offers all-around comfort.

"It's all perception," she said. "That's what downtown is, is perception."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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