Downtown Ambassadors are the ‘eyes and ears of the street’ keeping Frederick postcard perfect
It’s no secret, downtown Frederick has a look and feel straight out of central casting for a Hallmark holiday movie.
The state tourism promoter, Visit Maryland, describes it as “a thriving 50-block historic district for shopping, dining, art, architecture, and entertainment.”
And it’s one of those charming historic districts that not only attracts visitors from the wider region but hums with the ebb and flow of local daily life.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, none of this comes as news to you. But consider this: 50 blocks. That is a large area for a small city to keep up that level of charm week in and week out, year after year. Vibrant downtowns don’t just happen by accident, after all. And while maintaining and operating Frederick’s historic district is the work of many, there is a crack team of just a few workers who are taking on some of the heavy lifting to keep it postcard perfect.
“We’re out here walking the streets, we’re meeting people, we’re greeting them and talking to them, making them feel welcome,” said Dwayne Brooks, a supervisor of that team known as the Downtown Ambassadors.
Since late 2021, the Downtown Frederick Partnership has managed the city’s contract with Block by Block, a hospitality service provider in more than 200 cities across the country, to run the Downtown Ambassador Program in Frederick.
What started in 2018 as a downtown safety and services initiative by the city and the Ausherman Family Foundation led to the creation of a committee tasked with investigating the feasibility of an ambassador program here.
DFP executive director Kara Norman, who chaired the committee at the time, said DFP had been hoping to have an ambassador program for years. While a fully staffed cleaning and hospitality program doesn’t come cheap, she said, “It was that initiative that really got the momentum going to help us get the funding necessary.”
Now a fully realized team of four in the winter and six in the summer, these ambassadors are tasked with making downtown Frederick cleaner, safer and welcoming from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every Wednesday through Sunday. Brooks’ role centers around hospitality, a broad term for myriad services that require hefty doses of local knowledge, social skills, resource training and a fair amount of tact.
“We get a lot of compliments,” Brooks says, noting that several times a day people thank him for what he and his team do. “We talk to everybody — visitors, residents that live in the area, the homeless population. We know a lot of them by first name, and they know us.”
The hospitality team spends most of its time giving directions, fulfilling requests to accompany solo guests to their cars at night, orienting visitors to parking facilities and, in a manner of speaking, making sure folks know where the sidewalk ends when they’ve enjoyed a few too many.
Luckily, Brooks was on duty when a man in a nice suit, who had evidently knocked back a few too many, started stumbling into the street, trying to remember where he parked his car. The man was able to get assistance not only to get out of the immediate danger of the street but to find a better way home than driving a car in his condition.
“We don’t know the impact of what could have happened, had Dwayne not happened to meet him and get him on a better path,” Norman said, “so to me, it’s really impactful to think about. … There’ve been great stories,” Norman added, recalling an incident where an older woman, at lunch with her friends, was unable to physically make it back to her car. “The ambassadors connected with her, got her a chair, got her some water and stayed with her until her friends were able to go get the car and bring it to her.” The ambassador team later received a thank-you note from the woman’s daughter, saying “how appreciative she was that people took such good care of her mother,” Norman recalled.
As of September 2022, about a year into the Downtown Frederick Ambassador Program, Block by Block recorded 730 instances where hospitality assistance was fulfilled, including 151 times when a hospitality escort was provided. In that same time period, the cleaning crew ambassadors saw to the removal of biohazard material 549 times, as well as the collection of hundreds of cigarette butts. Well, 602 to be precise — and Block by Block builds its reputation on being precise.
Checking in with businesses in the historic district is another function of hospitality the ambassadors provide. They see whether there’s any way they can support business owners and staff with any public needs, as well as restock the contact cards usually displayed inside the shops that feature information on how to reach an ambassador, should the need arise.
“We are the eyes and ears of the street,” said Bryan Dixon, Block by Block’s operations manager for the Downtown Frederick Ambassador Program. Per their September 2022 report, the ambassadors made contact with local businesses 486 times, in addition to removing graffiti, stickers and more than 500 bags of trash.
“It’s been great. The business owners love us here,” said Dixon, who previously worked with an ambassador program in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor neighborhood. “The ambassadors in Frederick are great. They’ve built a great relationship with the business owners and guests before I even got here. I’m just helping to keep it going, keep them motivated.”