LAND O'LAKES — In an effort to save money on gas, Sam Licata bought himself an electric golf cart a few weeks back.
He lives in a subdivision in Land O'Lakes called Oakstead, which is building a shopping center and grocery store.
On Memorial Day weekend, Licata ended up driving his SUV to his current grocery store three times, 24 miles and about 8 bucks in gas. So when his neighborhood store opens in the next few months, he's going to save tons of money.
You see, Licata didn't just get any old rickety golf cart. He is known as Sam the Hubcap Man — the name of his custom wheel business in Tampa. And a man with a name like that can't be seen in a worn out hoopdie.
Licata did buy a used golf cart, but it had been stripped down, customized and tricked out. It's black and raised, has 22 1/2-inch fat wheels, a Nerf bar and other fancy bells and whistles.
It's street legal, so it can go on roads that are 35 mph and less. It has a windshield, mirrors, headlights, brake lights, turn signals, reflectors, seat belts, license plate, insurance — everything it has to have by law. The total cost was about $6,000, so it might take some time to pay for itself.
But the cost of charging it up is about a dollar a month and the cart's batteries should last five years or so — and to replace all of those costs around $300.
When Licata told a neighbor how much he paid for it, she had some "choice words" for him. "She said I was crazy," Licata said.
But then when he got it, drove it to her house and honked the horn, she started singing a different tune. Licata said she loved it. He wouldn't be surprised if many people in his neighborhood get one.
Marty Luster, co-owner of Golf Car Depot in Land O'Lakes, was the one who sold Licata the cart. Luster said sales of electric, street-legal carts have increased in recent months because of the economy. Gregg Laskoski, managing director of public relations for AAA in Tampa, said that with gas prices a few pennies from $4 a gallon, it "makes sense" that people are trying to find cheaper ways of transportation.
Granted, golf carts don't help everyone. They are good for people in communities where shops and restaurants are close and can be reached by 35 mph or less back streets. When made street legal, carts are called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles.
Golf carts are "friendly," Luster said. There's just something about them that's welcoming.
Residents wave to each other and stop to say hello. Many Realtors use them to showcase communities. Parents get them to shuttle their kids to their local pools or ballfields. Schools and churches buy them to transport people and for maintenance workers. The nudist resorts in Land O'Lakes are big customers.
Luster said that at least 70 percent of his customers buy carts for recreation and only 30 percent are actually for golfing. His carts start out at about $2,000 and can go for $10,000 or more. But a quick search on Tampa Bay's Craigslist shows a four-seater selling for $800 and one for free (if you have a professional sized pool table you want to barter).
Tony Michaud lives in Hyde Park and bought a golf cart from Luster recently. He's used it to drive to Petco and to restaurants around South Tampa. He also paid about $6,000 for his golf cart, so he's not kidding himself about immediately saving money. But, it's "green," he said, and is thinking of adding solar panels to it at some point. Michaud works in Ybor City, which is 5 miles from his home. He's going to try to take it to work.
"It's fun," he said.
Licata asked some of his neighbors to go to dinner with him and his wife recently. The former golf cart naysayers were a bit bummed that Licata was still a bit too nervous to take the cart across State Road 54 and fretted about the cart's batteries running low. During dinner, one friend excused himself and was outside for quite awhile. When he got back, Licata asked him what he had been doing.
"I was looking for an outlet," said the friend, who did find one, "so we can take the cart next time."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.