- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

NORFOLK (AP) — When visitors to Norfolk ask public-safety ambassadors for directions, they also get a printout.

The on-the-street helpers in white, blue and teal uniforms now have hand-held computers and printers loaded with downtown information. They’ll give visitors a small printout with how to get to their destinations, along with addresses and phone numbers, in case they still get lost.

The computers are “taking our customer service to another level,” said Mary Miller, vice president of the Downtown Norfolk Council, which employs the ambassadors, who have about 1,800 interactions with the public each month.

Melissa Winstead recently emerged from a downtown parking garage and could not get oriented. She stopped ambassador Valerie Kenny, looking for Kelly’s Backstage Tavern.

“I’m from Norfolk, and I’m lost,” Miss Winstead said.

Miss Kenny printed directions on the spot, at the intersection of Main and Atlantic streets.

“This is cool,” Miss Winstead said, reading the strip of paper the size of a cash register receipt. “I can use this. … I followed directions like this to drive to Florida.”

The council, a private group that promotes downtown, is spending about $25,000 for the Eponic Corp. personal digital-assistant system and another $1,200 a month in support services, said Rod McLeod, the group’s operations manager.

In addition to guiding visitors, the devices streamline the ambassadors’ other duties.

They also must report problems such as graffiti, litter, panhandling, malfunctioning parking meters, damaged sidewalks and broken street lights.

Until recently, the ambassadors would jot notes while on the street and fill out paperwork later in the office. They often would have to call a supervisor and request that a photo be taken. Now they take their own pictures and enter data into their computers on the spot.

“We can analyze what’s going on in the streets faster and more thoroughly,” Miss Miller said, “and it keeps the ambassadors on the street more, interacting with the customers.”

Norfolk is the sixth U.S. city to adopt the system. It’s also used in Los Angeles; New York City, Phoenix, Long Beach, Calif. and Portland, Ore.

The council will consider adding other functions, including printing coupons for businesses, maintaining reports on properties that are for sale or lease and conducting surveys.

“This gives us a more competitive edge in the region,” Miss Miller said.

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