St. Paul city and business leaders gathered at Rice Park Thursday to praise 16 neon-wearing, broom-toting, radio-wielding downtown Street Team members for cleaning up garbage, graffiti and crime in the capital city's business and cultural core.

"Just in time, we rallied ourselves together around downtown. ... Just in time, we created this Downtown Alliance Street Team," said Mayor Melvin Carter, who lauded team members for helping revive the area and bring crime to a five-year low. "I just want to say on behalf of our city, this Street Team has been the talk of the town. If you haven't noticed, people are noticing your work."

He added: "You are always working, and we see you. We appreciate you."

Divided into two crews — a cleaning crew that works six days a week and a safety crew that works two shifts a day, seven days a week — the team has cleaned up more than 1,000 incidents of graffiti and reached out to more than 800 businesses, said Block By Block Operations Manager Jason Burns. Team members perform a variety of tasks, including picking up litter, giving directions and escorting downtown workers to their cars after dark.

"I think we've made St. Paul cleaner. I think we've made it safer," Burns said. "I think there's still work to be done."

For example, he said, they plan to put a new power washer to good use.

Property owners representing downtown St. Paul institutions, including Securian Financial, Travelers Insurance, Ecolab and the InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront, in 2020 agreed to pay into a special service district similar to Minneapolis' Downtown Improvement District. Those contributions totaled about $600,000 for this year, said Downtown Alliance President Joe Spencer.

He credited a combination of factors — including a new coordinated safety communications center and a city grant of $650,000 to pay for police overtime — for helping reduce downtown crime 23% in June, July and August compared with 2020. Still, he said, the impact of Street Team members working in the Downtown Improvement District cannot be overlooked.

"Those 16 bodies have a radio in their ear. Even if they're out with a pan and broom, they've still got a radio in their ear," Spencer said. "It makes a difference."

According to its website, the district encompasses St. Paul's "most prominent artistic, cultural and entertainment venues, along with theatres, restaurants and other attractions that have unique needs." The district is managed by a governing board representing a cross-section of property owners throughout its boundaries. Funds from participating commercial property owners, as well as voluntary contributions from the city, county and other tax-exempt property owners have paid for services.

Businesses have agreed to spend $1.2 million next year, Spencer said. There is no city funding slated for 2022.

"These are services that are above and beyond" what the city spends, Spencer said. "It works best when they are business-led."

Matt Majka is president of the Minnesota Wild, which in addition to hockey manages concerts and shows at Xcel Energy Center. An improved downtown is vital to attracting the return of crowds to the X, he said. The Street Team is helping make it happen.

"The Street Team has made St. Paul feel safe and clean and has helped us to start to execute large scale events with confidence again," said Majka, who sits on the Downtown Alliance board. "They are upbeat and they approach difficult and not-so-difficult situations with calm and good spirit. That to me is the secret sauce. I'm really grateful for their presence."