The gecko-green vehicle zipping around downtown lately isn't a golf cart at all: it's a low-speed vehicle (LSV), and the difference, if you ask its owner, Biff Lagan, or the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce, is substantial.
"It's not an upgraded golf cart," Chamber Executive Director Bob Newcomb says. LSVs have safety features such as seatbelts and windshield wipers, have to register with the DMV, and they're legal on any road with a posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour or less.
And they're coming to Gulfport.
With a little cooperation and some shared funding, this green LSV and at least one other LSV could help make parking in downtown Gulfport easier.
"We're changing how people think about transportation," Lagan says. Lagan, a retired officer who, with his wife Angela, bought the Beach Bazaar last year, is an active member of the Chamber and the Gulfport Merchants Association (GMA) who says he wants to find a way to improve downtown's parking situation. He, the Chamber and the GMA say that a LSV taxi program that offers free rides would help solve the parking issues plaguing downtown during festivals, weekend nights, and other special events.
Does Gulfport need a taxi service?
"Look at the bike racks," Lagan says. Indeed, last Sunday morning cyclists locked bikes to water pipes, trees, and power poles outside of Pia's during the restaurant's weekly brunch: even bike parking grows scarce at certain times.
The service – tentatively named GetGo, or "Gulfport Everyday Transportation, Get On!" – will not charge riders. Drivers will lease the cars from an as-of-yet-unformed nonprofit corporation and offer rides for free, although drivers will work for tips only. Drivers will sign a contract agreeing to operate the LSV during specific hours.
GetGo, the group says, will minimize the need for locals to drive downtown or to designate a driver. The group says their intention is to service only Gulfport and also to encourage drivers to minimize their use of Gulfport Boulevard and 49th Street; rather, they would expect drivers to use side streets instead.
Newcomb says the nonprofit running GetGo will have nine board of directors, with three from each partnering agency: the Chamber, the GMA and, they hope, the city.
On Thursday, February 6, the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce will propose a partnership to the City of Gulfport: a three-way share of costs to bring LSV taxi rides to Gulfport . Under the proposal, the GMA, the Chamber, and the city would share the initial startup and ongoing maintenance costs of operating a free LSV taxi service in the downtown area. The nonprofit will ensure the LSVs have proper insurance and receive maintenance.
The group would like the city to make an initial investment of an estimated $4,000; it also anticipates the city's annual contribution as – and Newcomb stresses this figure as a "high estimate" only – $10,300.
"When your'e making a proposal to a public body," he says, "you don't want to make it 'pie in the sky'. Our numbers will probably be pessimistic rather than optimistic. What we're trying to propose to the city is a fair deal."
Newcomb says it makes sense to ask the city to contribute on equal footing with the GMA and Chamber, as it operates two of the biggest businesses GetGo will serve: the Casino and the marina.
At Thursday's workshop, they will ask the council for its partnership, but the group does not need the city's permission to operate LSVs on city roads.
"We would like their blessing," Lagan, who so believes in the program's promise he privately purchased the first LSV.
Although the state allows LSVs on any road with a posted speed limit of 45 or less, cities can pass laws prohibiting LSVs. Gulfport Police Chief Rob Vincent and City Manager Jim O'Reilly say they have no intention of prohibiting low speed vehicles on city streets.
"We have no problem with state registered, licensed and insured low-speed vehicles operated by licensed drivers on city streets," City Manager O'Reilly said.
The LSVs can travel 35 miles off one charge and can recharge in a half hour. The nonprofit will generate income from selling seven advertising spots on each vehicle. Lagan says in the short time he's driven the green LSV around Gulfport, he's had an overwhelming response from people wanting to buy advertising space.
Gulfport's business community, Newcomb says, "is amenable" to the new venture. Chamber officers describe the GetGo business as not only a solution to limited parking downtown, but as one more tool in Gulfport's toolbox that lures businesses and visitors to the city.
When they ask the city to partner Thursday afternoon, the Chamber hopes the city sees how it can benefit from partnering in GetGo.
"The potential tax revenue they could generate," Chamber President Barry Rubin says, is substantial, adding that the system will help tie together businesses on both sides of Gulfport Boulevard, allowing people to travel freely to the shops and restaurants on 22nd, or to see a show at the Gulfport Players' BackDoor Theatre off 49th, all without having to get in a car.
Gulfport city council will consider whether or not to make a financial commitment to the GetGo program this Thursday (February 6) at 4 p.m. in council chambers (2401 53rd Street South). The council will not vote on this issue at the workshop but will discuss their intentions. It will also hear comment and opinion from the public.