The Newly Formed Hartford Business Improvement District Is Counting On Its "ambassadors" To Help Usher In An Era Of Prosperity.
June 7, 2007
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
It didn’t take long to spot Hartford watchdog Sam Vega. I saw him on a boiling Friday afternoon on Main Street near City Hall.
Vega wore a bright blue polo shirt with “SECURITY AMBASSADOR” emblazoned in back and a baseball cap embroidered with “Hartford Business Improvement District.”
On his belt, Vega carried a holstered cell phone and a two-way radio. He wore no gun.
Vega is one of nine “security ambassadors” and six “cleaning ambassadors” deployed by the Hartford Business Improvement District to clear the way for downtown’s transition into an oasis of arts, entertainment and business. He is another set of eyes and ears for Hartford police, according to Michael Zaleski, executive director of HBID.
Hartford’s downtown business district was formed last October in a special referendum of 121 property owners, including corporate interests such as The Travelers, Aetna and The Hartford; individuals like Ron Morneau and James Varano, who own buildings on Asylym Street; and developers such as Northland Investment Corp., the largest property owner downtown, and the Cloud family, a smaller developer involved in renovating two buildings on Lewis Street.
Controlling some $800 million worth of property, the owners voted by a 70 percent majority to impose a special one mill tax on themselves, generating nearly $800,000 for the improvement district’s first year of operation.
The city of Hartford kicked in an additional $220,500, giving Zaleski about $1.1 million this year.
“The business improvement district model has been successful throughout the country,” said Zaleski. “There are 53 in New York City alone.”
Quickly parking my car, I caught up with Vega just past the Burger King on Main Street. In his third day on the job, Vega said he has been well-received on the streets.
“A lot of people are happy we’re out here, helping the Hartford Police Department,” he said.
So far the security ambassadors have dealt mostly with panhandlers.
Walking down Church Street and turning left on High Street, I spotted two cleaning ambassadors slowly working their way up Allyn Street in the heat of the afternoon.
Frank Lopez was sweeping up trash with a broom and long-handled dust pan, while Joe Seltzer pushed along a bright yellow trash can with supplies to tackle a variety of cleaning challenges including minor works of graffiti. For more ambitious graffiti, the cleaning ambassadors have brand new power washers.
Lopez said he’s suited to the job because he has worked in landscaping and because he likes to be outside.
“I’ve been in Hartford for 40 years,” said Lopez. “The city means a lot to me.”
Working my way back to Main Street on Asylum I came across another cleaning ambassador sweeping up the Old State House Square with a quick, fluid technique I couldn’t help but admire.
I caught up with Horace Hicks near the bus stop on Central Row across from the Old State House. Hicks is a veteran, having cleaned up since 1996 for Hartford Proud and Beautiful sponsored first by the the Downtown Council and later by the Greater Hartford Arts Council.
He said in all those years he only became discouraged when people threw trash on the street immediately after he cleaned it.
“I’ll go over and politely start picking it up, saying ‘Thank you very much, you’re keeping me in a job,’” Hicks said.
Most people — embarrassed — apologize and pick up their own trash.
“I try to keep a positive attitude,” said Hicks.
I told Hicks about national studies Zaleski cited showing if you consistently remove graffiti within a day, graffiti taggers move on.
“We need to continually be persistent so it starts to frustrate graffiti vandals and they take their business elsewhere,” Zaleski said.
Hicks was skeptical.
“They ain’t got discouraged in the last 10 years I’ve been here trying to keep this city clean,” he said.
But Zaleski said the city has never had the resources available to provide the kind of “intense removal” of graffiti that he remains convinced will shut down the taggers.
“We now have the resources to test that [national] study,” said Zaleski. “Obviously there’s a backlog (of graffiti) at the moment. We have to get ourselves to 100 percent clean. After that there’s going to be daily removal.”