A.C.’s new ambassadors aid tourists and more

Atlantic City ambassadors Javier Echevarria (left) and Noel Malave keep an eye on things on the Boardwalk. The program is part of the Special Improvement Division. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Atlantic City ambassadors Javier Echevarria (left) and Noel Malave keep an eye on things on the Boardwalk. The program is part of the Special Improvement Division. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 05, 2012

ATLANTIC CITY — Noel Malave saw it all in the 11 years he roamed the streets of this gambling resort as one of a small contingent of paid greeters in the city’s old Special Improvement District.

The homeless. The hustlers. The hookers. And the lost — tourists who had no idea where they were going, and locals who didn’t know how to get from here to there.

Dead bodies washed up on the beach, and women in labor were hustled to maternity wards. Children wandered off and were retrieved.

But mostly, people just wanted to know where to get a good sandwich and a beer or how to locate a restroom. Malave gladly gave directions, supplied the cops with criminals’ favorite hiding places, and — if anyone had asked — could have recited precisely which streetlights needed replacement.

“I never get tired of talking to people. … I think they get tired of me before I get tired of them,” he said. “At the end of the day, I feel I’ve done my job if I’ve left them smiling.”

When Malave, 28, of Absecon, hits the bricks Friday — dressed in a spiffy uniform consisting of a monogrammed neon-yellow shirt and reflective windbreaker, dark cargo pants, combat boots, and a park-ranger-style hat — his role as one of 46 new tourist “ambassadors” will be far more defined. By Memorial Day, 60 ambassadors will be on the job.

Now under the direction of the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and armed with smartphone technology and old-fashioned hospitality training, Malave and his colleagues will be the “eyes and ears” of the resort’s recently designated Tourism District.

The zone was created last year by the Christie administration to spur confidence, and investment, in the flagging gambling town. By sprucing up the casino area on the Boardwalk and along Pacific and Atlantic Avenues, officials hope visitors will feel welcome and safe.

The ambassadors are important components in that initiative, said Don Guardian, director of the authority’s new Special Improvement Division, which morphed from the former district.

The previous greeter program had a $444,000 annual budget and 22 employees who earned $7.50 an hour, Guardian said. They needed only to pass background and drug checks and to be certified in first aid. The new recruits will make $12.50 an hour, must hold at least a college associate degree — preferably in criminal justice, hospitality, or sociology — and have to complete 80 hours of training.

Funding for the $1.6 million annual program — whose budget this year includes $1.4 million in labor costs, $38,000 for uniforms, $20,000 for smartphones, $7,000 for 14 new bicycles — comes from the authority and fees paid by commercial property owners in the Special Improvement District.

Foot and bike patrols will roam seven zones in the 14- by three-block district daily from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. At peak times — such as weekends and holidays and during special events — about 20 ambassadors will be on duty.

“If the Tourism District is going to succeed, it’s important for everyone, whether they are visitors or residents, to feel safe and comfortable when they are here,” Guardian said. “That’s our main goal.”

So, in addition to showing people the way to the next whiskey bar or casino game, the squad’s job is to report anything suspicious — or just out of kilter — to the appropriate authority. It can be an injured parking-lot patron who needs someone to call 911 or a simple matter of overturned trash cans that require the attention of a public works crew, said Tom Burns, manager of the ambassadors, who will be headquartered in a refurbished operations center/police substation at the corner of Indiana Avenue and the Boardwalk.

Using their smartphones, the ambassadors will report any issues, from emergencies to aesthetics, so they can be quickly resolved without “going through a big bureaucracy and taking weeks for a problem to get attention,” Burns said.

Marrying hospitality to the concept of ambassadors as an arm of the police — with criminal justice majors being given preference for jobs — makes sense to Burns, a former New Jersey State Police captain.

“It’s all about community involvement and the positive interactions we can have with the public,” he said.

John Palmieri, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said the Atlantic City program exceeds the scope of similar efforts in cities such as Boston and Phoenix because of its broader community involvement.

“Because of the partnerships and resources available, the Atlantic City ambassador team is trained and empowered to be proactive and to make a difference,” he said.

Lizette Trane, 72, of Matawan, said she felt secure walking the Boardwalk yesterday when she saw the neon uniforms of the ambassadors.

“We like to come to Atlantic City. We’ve never had any problems. But it gives you a safer feeling to know they’re there if you need them,” Trane said as she and her sister walked between Caesars and Trump Plaza casinos.

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog at www.philly.com/downashore.

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