By Peter Sloggatt
“I don’t take up space.”
That’s the new buzz phrase in downtown Huntington, where a free shuttle designed to alleviate the village’s legendary parking crunch is getting ready to roll.
Qwik Ride, a free app-based people mover, which recently started offering service in the similarly parking-challenged Patchogue village, is preparing to launch shuttle services in Huntington in mid-July. The aim is to get employees’ cars off the streets and out of public parking lots to free up spaces for customers.
The Huntington Village Business Improvement District, Huntington Chamber of Commerce and The Paramount are co-hosting a meeting this Tuesday, June 19, 6 p.m. at The Paramount for village business owners to learn about the launch.
Qwik Ride has ordered five, six-person electric golf carts it will use to shuttle people around downtown Huntington free of charge. The hope is that employers, particularly restaurant owners, will require their workers to park in outlier locations like the Town Hall parking lot or the municipal lot adjacent to Rite Aid at the western end of the village.
Hard numbers are hard to come by but Jack Palladino, president of the Huntington Village BID and owner of Christopher’s pub on Wall Street, estimates “in very round numbers” that between retail shops, offices and restaurants, some 300-500 employees work in the village.
“And they all have to park,” Palladino said.
And while the dynamic shifts in the evening hours when many shops and offices are closed, the parking crunch is at its worst when restaurant customers and ticketholders to a show at The Paramount are competing for parking spaces. What makes it worse is that restaurant workers arriving for their shifts in late afternoon snag the most convenient spaces and tie them up until the end of the night.
“At peak times there’s just not enough spaces for people to park. That’s when you see people circling around and around. It hurts business,” Palladino said.
The introduction of Qwik Ride to shuttle employees builds on a program The Paramount put in place a year-and-a-half ago. Paramount runs a van to shuttle its workers between the theater and offsite parking at Huntington Town Hall.
“Participation is mandatory,” Paramount co-owner Dominic Catoggio said, adding that on a sold-out show night, the theater can have as many as 50 employees working.
“That’s 50 cars that are not tying up parking in the village,” Catoggio said. “What we’re trying to do now is get the people who work in the bars and restaurants to do the same to free up even more parking spaces.”
Qwik Ride co-founder Dan Cantelmo said, “The goal is to move employees to distant parking. When there are less people circling for spaces in the village, there’s no gridlock.”
In addition, he added, “Those spaces will be turned over several times in a night.”
Qwik Ride launched in Patchogue on Cinco de Mayo to ferry patrons to the village’s waterfront restaurants, which are popular, but lack adequate parking. The village also hosts popular “Alive After Five” nights that close roads to traffic altogether creating a huge pedestrian mall.
In under six weeks, Qwik Ride has done nearly 600 rides and ferried around 1,000 people, Cantelmo said. “People want it. There’s a need for it, and the best part, it’s free.”
Cantelmo’s business model counts on advertising and sponsorships to pay for the service. The neon colored electric carts have TV screens that roll advertising messages. Sponsors can also spring to brand a cart with their advertising message.
In Patchogue, restaurants that want to participate in the “Alive After Five” festivities are obligated to sign on guaranteeing the restaurant’s employees park outside high-demand areas. The Huntington program may not have that kind of leverage, but organizers are working on ways to incentivize employees to use the shuttles, from monthly raffles to gift certificate giveaways.
And restaurant patrons will know who’s on board as well. Businesses that pledge their participation will display a window decal, and individual workers will be allowed to wear a button that reads, “I Don’t Take Up Space.”
Participating businesses will also benefit from cross-marketing. The Paramount will provide them listings and website links on the theater’s heavily trafficked website and push them out to their nearly 100,000 Facebook followers, Catoggio said.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to do something, but we only get one shot at it,” Catoggio said. “We’re hoping merchants and restaurant owners will come to the meeting, learn how they can help and get on board.”