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San Francisco 'Ambassadors' Welcome Tourists

City ambassador Wayne Alexis helps a tourist find his way in San Francsico, California. (Photo courtesy Union Square BID)City ambassador Wayne Alexis helps a tourist find his way in San Francsico, California. (Photo courtesy Union Square BID)
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City ambassador Wayne Alexis helps a tourist find his way in San Francsico, California. (Photo courtesy Union Square BID)
City ambassador Wayne Alexis helps a tourist find his way in San Francsico, California. (Photo courtesy Union Square BID)
Faiza Elmasry
When business owners in downtown San Francisco, California, wanted to make their neighborhood safer and more attractive to tourists, one of their first actions was to hire "city ambassadors.”  

Union Square is the heart of San Francisco. It's a vibrant shopping area with dozens of shops, restaurants, theaters, art galleries and hotels, around a large open plaza where visitors can stroll, meet friends and just enjoy the day. Ambassadors spend the day walking around the neighborhood, providing a friendly face and a helping hand.

“They are not security guards in the traditional sense," said Russ Keil, is one of more than 500 business owners who founded the city ambassador team almost 15 years ago. "They are really individuals who are out on the streets, essentially looking for problems but also greeting our visitors.”

And they make a good impression on visitors. Keil recalls a recent encounter with a group of Japanese businessmen who were considering renting retail space in the area.

“We were meeting on a very busy sidewalk," he said. "They were remarking about how clean the sidewalk was and there was no graffiti.  And at that point, one of the ambassadors came walking by and greeted me. This company from Japan was so surprised and said, 'Who was that?'  I said, ‘That’s Wayne, he's one of our ambassadors.’”

Wayne Alexis approaches people who look like they need help: whether they are tourists who can’t find their way or the city’s homeless who sleep on the sidewalks.  Every day, he patrols the 27-block area in his red sweater vest uniform, carrying maps for lost tourists and a cellphone with important numbers on speed dial.

“It’s something that I really get pleasure out of doing," Alexis said. "It also gives me an opportunity to exchange information with people.”

Alexis is one of eight city ambassadors, according to Karen Flood, spokesperson for the Union Square Business Improvement District.

“They welcome tourists," Flood said. "They give directions and inform people about the neighborhood. They serve as the eyes and ears for the police; they are not able to enforce, of course, that's the job of the police, but they do alert the police if there are individuals that are not following the rules and ordinances of the city. They help those in need in our neighborhood, the homeless, and direct them toward social services.”

That’s the part of his job Alexis likes best. He recalls working with a homeless man who continually refused any help.

“One day, he finally told me, ‘Hey man, I’m ready,’ so I connected him with the Homeless Outreach Team," Alexis said. "He went through a substance [abuse] program, took him to job counseling, providing the necessary tools to help him make that transition to better his life. One day he came and [was a] totally different guy than how he was when I met him on the street; he was clean, shaved. He got a job. I was happy for him. I feel good. It’s a very rewarding job.”

San Francisco is not the first city to form an ambassador team. The city modeled its program on a similar one in New York City. Flood says Union Square’s success has inspired other neighborhoods to follow its lead.

“When we started in 1999, we were the only business improvement district hiring these ambassadors," she said. "Now there are 12 other districts in San Francisco and four of them hire these ambassadors to serve the neighborhood. We'd love to see our program expand into other cities.”

Flood says the reason for the program’s success is no secret.  Behind the neat uniform and big smile is a welcoming attitude - and a great city.

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