By Josh Dulaney Staff Writer
Posted: 01/13/2011 05:52:46 PM PST

SAN BERNARDINO – At Fourth and D streets, a woman dressed in gray slacks and a form-fitting black sweater steps lightly through the southern crosswalk, perhaps on her way to a business meeting or early Thursday lunch.

In the parallel crosswalk, a transient man with a disheveled beard and dirty clothes limps slowly across the street.

The heart of the city seems barely alive on a sun-soaked morning where the snow-capped mountains peek between buildings that house numerous vacant shops and empty offices.

The man and woman become living symbols of where the city has been and where it wants to go.

During a short walk near the downtown loft she owns, 1st Ward Councilwoman Virginia Marquez talks confidently with police Lt. Ray King and police Sgt. Rick Lindsey about downtown’s future as a family-friendly destination.

“We do have many projects on the horizon,” she says. “But we need to change the perception first.”

Indeed, the Police Department reports that violent crime in the downtown district – which runs from Mill Street north to Ninth Street and the 215 Freeway east to Sierra Way – is down 34percent since 2006.

The Police Department last year reported that district crime is limited mostly to thefts and that it accounts for about 7percent of crime citywide.

Last year, the Police Department assigned a seven-member team to the area.

The team includes a sergeant and officers trained to patrol on bicycles and Segways. Two homeless advocates are on the team and two traditional patrol officers drive the area.

Still, Marquez recognizes that when it comes to public safety, perception continues to trump reality, especially as it relates to downtown’s reputation.

And that has translated into a hollow downtown battered not only by the economy but by the view among some that the city can’t revive the ailing area.

In one breath she rattles off a list of places she used to frequent as she passes one empty storefront after another.

She wants to see a shuttered Mexican restaurant reopen at Fourth and E. It sits next to an empty shop where years ago an orthodontist used to work.

In another breath, she mentions the projects on which the city is pinning its downtown future. Those include a revamped cinema site, the sbX bus rapid transit line and a new courthouse.

“We’re going to bring some restaurants, shops and boutiques,” she says. “We’re going to do an extreme makeover here.”

But first, she says, the city must be more inviting to residents who perceive downtown to be a dangerous place that cannot be transformed.

To that end, Marquez is working with King and Lindsey on the newly created Downtown Ambassador Program.

Marquez credits Councilman Chas Kelley for putting forward the concept, which essentially is a team of volunteer ambassadors who welcome visitors to downtown in an effort to make the place friendlier. As she walks with King and Lindsey, they discuss various aspects of the program.

Teams of two ambassadors each will take shifts Monday through Friday, directing visitors to city landmarks and destinations.

They must first pass a background check, take 40 hours of training to learn radio procedures, learn first aid, and get up to speed on the city and some of its history.

A start date for the program is yet to be set, but the program already has received interest.

One applicant is from Rialto.

Police say ambassadors don’t necessarily have to live in San Bernardino, as long as they are friendly and have a genuine interest in learning about the city and helping others.

“The thing is, we’re trying to make downtown exciting again,” Lindsey says. “There’s an aspect of the customer service part that we’re kind of missing and this is going to fill that gap.”

The ambassador concept takes its cue from a similar program that began in Orlando, Fla., in 2008.

The program there was designed to help tourists, reach out to the homeless and report on damage to city streets and buildings – all elements that are packed into the San Bernardino program.

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