Our Opinion: Downtown ambassadors impact reality, perception

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"It's all perception," says Laurie Tierney, owner of Hotel on North of Pittsfield's downtown. The perception of downtown (or "upstreet" in Pittsfield's vernacular) as an unwelcome if not dangerous place has hampered its recovery from the dark years in the wake of General Electric's painful departure from the city.

North Street, South Street and adjoining side streets began a renaissance under the downtown-centric policies of Mayor James Ruberto and a progressive City Council. The perception, however, may be lagging behind the reality. And to a degree, reality is perception and perception is reality.

The "downtown ambassadors" program of Downtown Pittsfield Inc. has attempted to make downtown a more welcoming place over the past several summers. This summer, the nonprofit effort has been sponsored for the first time, which has enabled Downtown Pittsfield to expand tis staff from two to five part-time ambassadors (Eagle, July 17).

Eagle reporter Amanda Drane accompanied ambassadors Nolan Pratt and Amarie Starr, both wearing neon orange T-shirts with the message "Welcome to Pittsfield. How Can I Help You?" emblazoned on the front. Much of what they do is predictable, such as directing downtown visitors to stores or to the restaurants that are often tucked away on streets off of North Street. Much of what they do could not have been as easily predicted.

Judging from the experiences of Mr. Pratt and Ms. Starr, much of the ambassadors' time is devoted to helping drivers with the downtown parking kiosks. That is time well-spent. There is no denying that many people find the kiosks intimidating, though they are less so after hands-on instruction as to how they work. Even if that instruction comes one driver at a time through the patient efforts of ambassadors, downtown will benefit.

Like many or most downtowns, Pittsfield has a homeless population, and Ms. Starr reports that she learned the locations of food pantries to direct homeless people to. She keeps cards on hand for the Elizabeth Freeman Center after once witnessing a man hitting a woman. Mr. Pratt noticed a common problem downtown: "A lot of people don't follow the traffic signals." He and we hope other ambassadors are trying to lead by example when using crosswalks after awaiting the proper signals, perhaps saving lives and limbs in the process.

The ambassadors are trained in CPR, first aid and public safety protocols by the Pittsfield Police Department, and carry police radios so they can alert first responders to serious problems. In this way they in part compensate for the department's inability because of funding issues to have officers walking the downtown beat for a full shift.

Mayor Linda Tyer is a program advocate and with a $5,000 matching grant, the city is the worthy program's largest sponsor. Guardian Life, Lee Bank, Barrington Stage, the Berkshire Museum, Berkshire Theatre Group and Hotel On North have contributed to the match.

Downtown has its challenges, like most downtowns in New England cities, but the reality has changed for the better and the perception should change with it. (Laurie Tierney's June 24 oped column highlighted the many draws of downtown.) The downtown ambassadors are improving both the perception and the reality of downtown. Tonight is Third Thursday, so why not head to North Street and get a look at that reality?

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