Tampa Downtown Guides Assistant Supervisor Ray Bertrand is unfazed by the hectic goings-on of the city’s Republican National Convention preparations. Donning his team’s signature pith helmet, the eminent explorer in yellow — whom community leaders named earlier this year the “Face of Downtown Tampa” — cheerfully saunters down Twiggs Street. His infectious enthusiasm about the incoming 50,000-plus visitors to the Tampa Bay area freshens the air better than a shot of Febreze.
“People will come down here from all over to soak up our beautiful beaches and great places,” he says with pride.
The 65-year-old retired mechanical engineer from Narragansett, RI, is a walking, talking Tampa guidebook, doling out handy tips with a salty Northeastern accent.
“We’re a little like AAA but free,” Bertrand says of the Tampa Downtown Guides.
On a recent 11 a.m.-8 p.m. shift, he stops along the way to give directions and make arrangements for one of his underlings to help a downtown employee with a flat tire. On another day he might aid motorists who’ve run out of gas or recommend historical places to visit, such as personal favorites the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa, Tampa Theatre and the recently remodeled Floridan Hotel. For “Miller Time,” he heads to Channelside.
Bertrand has been on the job longer than anyone else on the team — 10 years. He flashes a grin and a touch of bling by way of gold chain and souvenir hat flair, his left ear lobe punctured by a sapphire stud. Playboy pin notwithstanding, he doesn’t frequent the strip clubs. “I never went to one of those places.”
The restaurants, however, Bertrand knows well. If you need to know where to go during your downtown lunch break but aren’t in the mood for fast food à la Subway or Jimmy John’s, he says that the safest bet is the Loading Dock on East Madison Street.
Bertrand has to remain mum about the security training his group has undergone, including law enforcement workshops and meetings with federal agents, Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard. But not everything they’re doing for the convention is top secret; he and his team have been running extra errands for the RNC, delivering posters and promotional materials to local businesses. As far as shift changes go, he says the guides will double up and work in pairs. Their shifts won’t be longer, but there will be fewer days off.
In front of the police building, Police Chief Jane Castor stops en route to pose for a photo with Bertrand. She and other bigwigs know Ray by first name — and he, them.
About the protesters relegated to nearby Lykes Gaslight Square Park, Bertrand responds, “Ninety-nine percent of people just want to make their voices heard and don’t mean any harm. They’re entitled to come here and say what they want to say without any trouble.”
A neurological condition forces Bertrand to wear a brace on his lower right leg, but he remains undaunted with no plans of quitting any time soon, even if slowed down a little.
In a way he’s living a dream, unchained from a desk and computer, and walking around downtown for a living.
“I’ve made my cardiologist very happy,” Bertrand adds with a laugh.
Bertrand’s employer, The Tampa Downtown Partnership, is a private, not-for-profit 501(c)6 organization. For additional information, visit tampasdowntown.com.