Downtown Ambassadors Work to Make GR and Detroit Friendlier

They don’t wear capes, but ambassadors working the downtowns of Grand Rapids and Detroit sure know how to save the day.

A Detroit ambassador helps change a tire.
A Detroit ambassador with Block by Block helps change a tire. (Courtesy image).

Whether providing directions to lost visitors or changing a flat tire, their job is to ensure a warm and hospitable encounter for everyone they meet.

“We get to be superheroes for the day,” said Melvin Eledge, operations manager for the Grand Rapids program, which started in Sept. 2013. “We get to turn people’s bad days into much better days.”

The ambassadors who work in downtown Grand Rapids and in midtown and downtown Detroit are part of Block by Block, an organization which has implemented ambassador programs in over 70 cities in the United States. The Grand Rapids and Detroit programs are the only two in Michigan so far, working closely with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and the Downtown Detroit Partnership, respectively.

Ambassadors make their rounds during a typical shift, working to help with clean-up activities, graffiti removal and general Midwest friendliness. They guide out-of-towners to their destinations and answer questions about downtown events. They’ll help people in need of a car battery jump or tire change and even scrape car windows in the winter.

In addition to making downtowns friendlier, ambassadors also serve as an extra set of eyes and ears for police. They’ve been trained in CPR and first-aid, and can also help make connections to services for the homeless men and women they meet during their rounds.

“There’s not much we don’t do,” Eledge said.

A Grand Rapids ambassador stops to take a picture for visitors to downtown.
A Grand Rapids ambassador stops to take a picture for visitors to downtown. (Courtesy photo).

Hiring people with previous experience in the hospitality field is a strategy that’s working in both cities. You can train someone to do the basic functions of the job, but training them to be a “people person” is another story, said Thomas Henry, operations manager for the Detroit program, which started in May 2015. He looks for people eager to serve others. All ambassadors are paid a living wage, something Henry said is important in attracting and retaining quality employees.

He’s proud of the work that’s happening in Detroit and recounts a Seattle visitor’s experience as proof that efforts to make the city a friendlier place to be are working.

“She was just overwhelmed with the hospitality service that we provided, how clean downtown Detroit was and that it was just a different feel from when she’d visited ten years ago,” he said. “People are really feeling comfortable they’ll have a great time in downtown Detroit.”

Eledge knows people are going to talk about their experience visiting a city, the good and the bad. His hope is that the ambassador program gives them something nice to say.

“We want to turn it into an example of what we all hope our cities would be like,” Eledge said.

Have you had a positive experience with a Detroit or Grand Rapids ambassador? Share your story in the comments. 

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Courtesy photos provided by Block by Block.



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