Downtown Larry

Image courtesy of the Journal Gazette

Downtown Larry

DID Employee A Living Symbol of Renaissance

Seeing Larry Thomas Jr. tooling around downtown in a vivid green Kawasaki Mule, picking up trash, pulling weeds or cleaning up graffiti, is a common sight.

Last week, downtown regulars very likely saw him driving a white pickup truck emblazoned with the Downtown Improvement District’s Clean & Green logo as he helped with storm cleanup.

Thomas, manager of the district’s Clean & Green program, has become the face of the district and for many the symbol of downtown Fort Wayne’s resurgence.

The more one learns about Thomas, the more one discovers how appropriate it is that he has become associated with downtown’s renaissance. He is not only ardently dedicated to ensuring downtown is a safe and pleasant place to be, but his own life is an example of overcoming challenges and thriving.

“He’s responsible for keeping everything looking perfect. And that’s where he shines, because he gets it,” said Bill Brown, interim director of DID. “It’s not just about cleaning. It’s about marketing downtown and putting the best appearance we can on downtown. He’s personable and he’s really our ambassador for downtown. He’s the face people see out and about, and I think he does a great job of representing the DID.”

Thomas, 42, has worked for the district for three years. He is almost obsessively hardworking and passionate about his job.

“I live in the district, I play in the district and I work in the district,” Thomas said. “I look at this just like it’s my backyard. I’ve just got a pretty big backyard – 91 blocks.”

He is also a fairly unassuming guy who is still getting used to being the face of downtown.

He said a contest the DID sponsored a few years ago urging people to “get tagged with Downtown Larry” helped him get used to his role representing downtown. He became popular because people who got a picture taken with him qualified for a drawing for free TinCaps tickets.

Dedication

“I usually go home a happy man every day. Except the other day when I went home and the power was out,” Thomas said. “This job gives me a chance to help the environment and to help people. My happiest moment is when I can help someone.”

The major objective of the Clean & Green initiative is to make sure the district looks good. But Thomas said his other priority is public safety. On a typical day he sets out in the morning with his reach-and-grab and a five-gallon bucket, looking for trash. He is also looking for obstructions on sidewalks.

“With the Edsall House and Lamplight (apartments), we’ve got so many older people using Hoverounds, we need to keep the sidewalks safe. That’s my biggest thing. Young or old, I just want this to be a safe, clean place for everyone,” he said.

Thomas’ scheduled work hours are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. But it’s not uncommon to see him working a DID event over the weekend or even during a holiday.

This past Thanksgiving, Thomas noticed there was a lot of debris left over from the holiday lighting celebration the night before. While his mother was preparing his family’s Thanksgiving feast, Thomas was out picking up trash.

“I wasn’t asked or nothing, but I thought about it and realized we’ve got visitors here,” he said. “I wasn’t doing it for brownie points. I just saw something that needed put back together.”

He acknowledges his job requires a passion for downtown and is not suitable for everyone.

“It’s a lot of walking and dealing with extreme temperatures,” Thomas said. At one point he had six interns helping him, but it quickly dropped down to three after he handed out “the advanced rain-protection technology” – ponchos.

Second chance

Thomas was a supervisor at Hoosier Plastics for 10 years. He said many of the employees he supervised were on work release.

“So, I’ve seen both sides,” Thomas said. “I used to supervise people and then I ended up on the other side.”

Thomas ended up on the other side because of a drug-possession charge.

“I was in the drug court program,” he said. “And I’m very grateful for it. It made me refocus as far as my goals in life. It’s a tough program. If you’re not committed to change, you won’t make it. I’m walking proof people can change. They can make bad decisions, but you can come back.

“If you complete that program, you have an opportunity to get your felony dismissed,” Thomas said. “I went every day even though I didn’t have to. I’ve seen how hard it is to get a job if you have a felony – that’s why I was so committed to it.”

Thomas found his job with the DID through Blue Jacket Inc., a local non-profit that helps ex-offenders with vocational training and job-search help. The organization also runs a recruiting program that finds well-trained and -screened candidates for area employers.

Brown, who formerly served on the board of directors for both the Downtown Improvement District and Blue Jacket, urged the district to use Blue Jacket for employee recruitment.

“I think (Thomas is) truly a success story for Blue Jacket and what our program can do,” said David Gutting, board president of Blue Jacket. “Larry is great and he has a career there at the DID, which is what we want.

“Blue Jacket has garnered national attention, and we are expanding our program. We have states and cities wanting to model our program.”

Gutting said the program serves 300 to 350 people every year and has cut the recidivism rate of those who complete it in half compared with the national average. “So, we think we’re making a difference and we know we are making a difference in Allen County.

“We believe everyone deserves a second chance, but you have to earn it,” Gutting said.

Moments of pride

Last year, Thomas came up with a program that saved the district about $12,000 and gave Anthis Career Center students an opportunity not only to perfect their metal work skills, but also to make a major contribution to their community.

“I’m very grateful the DID gives me the freedom in my job to get things done and try new things when I see a problem,” Thomas said.

One problem he ran into was several of the DID’s trash cans were getting old and a little beat up. New trash receptacles cost about $900 each. Thomas collaborated with Tony Troutner, who teaches industrial tech and welding at Anthis, to have students repair the trash cans instead of sending them to a scrap heap.

“Now, those students can travel around the city and they will see their work for years to come,” Thomas said. “Four of the cans are on the new Martin Luther King Bridge right now.”

Thomas has taken a very strategic approach to where he places trash receptacles. He analyzed walking patterns to ensure people could easily find a trash can when they need one.

He also came up with a simple solution when property owners began complaining about people dumping cigarette receptacles out on the ground to search for partially smoked cigarettes. He used screws to secure the lids.

“Remember, this is my backyard,” Thomas said. “A can left on the street is a problem for me. Cigarette butts on the sidewalk, that’s a problem for me.”

His next project is installing about eight recycling units.

“Anything I do, I try to find a passion for it. I don’t take anything for granted. I try to lead my life as a positive and respectful person. Yes, I’m a drug court graduate. Yes, I’m a Blue Jacket graduate. But I’m walking proof some of us are positive, hard-working people. When we get these jobs and are successful, then we show people. I’m just so happy I can be a solution to the city rather than a problem to the city.”

-Journal Gazette

Original article can be found HERE

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Categories: Beautification, DID Downtown Improvement District, Goverment

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