*This column appeared in print February 13, 2014 in the Gabber Newspaper*
Since Thursday’s workshop where Gulfport Council entertained a request that Gulfport partner with the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce and the Gulfport Merchants Association to bring low-speed electric taxis (the GetGo system) to Gulfport, I’ve heard so many inaccurate statements I feel as though I’ve inadvertently stumbled onto a Fox News documentary.
I don’t know how I feel about Gulfport spending our tax dollars to partner with those two groups, but I do know that if we, as a city, choose to reject the proposal, let’s all do it for the right reasons. To that end, here is what I learned while interviewing the people behind the LSV initiative and city staff:
1. No one’s asking Gulfport city council for permission to operate these LSVs. These are not golf carts; they aren’t even golf cars modified to be street legal. They are low speed vehicles, and, as such, are ALREADY totally legal on any road with a posted speed limit of 35 MPH or less. That means they can operate on EVERY Gulfport road. State law allows cities to ban LSVs, but Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly and Gulfport Police Chief Rob Vincent both say they will not ask council to do that and don’t think it’s necessary.
2. The groups behind this – the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce and the Gulfport Merchants Association – would like the city to share the cost, but even if Gulfport does not, Biff Lagan (who purchased the first LSV) says the LSV as a free-to-riders-taxi will happen. This venture, he says, does not hinge on whether or not the city commits to partnering.
3. That same group says they want Gulfport to partner because the largest “business” in the Waterfront Redevelopment District, the Casino, is also (they say) one of the biggest parking spot hogs. Since the Casino – and by extension, the taxpayers who benefit from the money it collects from rentals and booze sales – would benefit from this business, why not ask the city to pony up?
4. These LSVs are not like the ones on St. Pete Beach, which a private company owns and operates. The City of St. Pete Beach and beach business such as the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce have no financial interest in those businesses. These businesses never asked the city for money in any public forum of which I am aware. This would be a public/private venture, and, as such, Gulfport would get an equal share of the seats on the Board of Directors, and an equal say.
5. They are not asking for permission to sell advertising on the LSVs. They do not need to ask permission; no law currently forbids it. According, again, to Biff, he’s already getting phone calls from people/businesses who want to advertise on the LSV. Don’t like advertising? You could ask the city to ban advertising on vehicles, but remember, PSTA buses have ads, too, and so do taxis, so such a law would cut most of Gulfport’s non-drivers from, well, pretty much everywhere more than a mile or two away from their front door.
But wait a moment: why don’t the “Free Beach Ride” people ask the city to partner with them? I assume they don’t need to ask for money. When I lived on the beach, the only time I saw the LSVs stop picking up passengers was to go recharge their batteries. St. Pete Beach is a tangle of tourists and locals, and it seemed once people arrived at their hotels, they expected a Disney-like experience where they didn’t have to drive again until it came time to leave for their flight home.
Gulfport, you may have noticed, has fewer overnight guests. We have some uber-crowded ArtWalks and so many street parties I’ve toyed with suggesting we change our slogan to “Gateway to the Festivals,” but no consistent traffic issues. Whether or not we have a parking issue depends, I suppose, on whether or not you’ve ever tried to find a parking spot downtown on a Friday night.
As I said, I don’t know how I feel about Gulfport buying in to this business. I’m not terribly worried that we’re competing with private industry, because as far as I recall, no legitimate business has ever wanted to service Gulfport with these minicabs. I suspect that’s because the Chamber’s Executive Director, Bob Newcomb, was correct when he told council he didn’t see the GetGo program as a high-profit endeavor. It’s just something to help make Gulfportians’ lives a bit easier, whether it’s getting them where they need to go or making it easier for downtown residents to find a place to park.
Which, actually, is probably the most convincing argument I’ve heard for the city to support this.
Can we afford it? Ah, well, that’s another column entirely.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.