Downtown business may be in a slump, but it's possible to forget that looking at James Perkins' electric taxi.
The white six-seater, which looks a lot like a golf cart, is wallpapered with ads for a dozen restaurants and other businesses. It inevitably draws curious stares from passers-by, intrigued by the smiling teddy bear of a driver whose booming voice rises above that of Etta James on the sound system.
"Downtown needs a shot in the arm, and I'm ready to give it to them," says Perkins, 46, who operates the city's only electric taxi service.
The ads make the Green Gator "free" for customers, though Perkins keeps a sign handy that says he works for tips. He started in July, seven months after the City Council amended the city code to include provisions for electric taxis.
There is Perkins' optimism and flashy ride, then there is the reality of daytime foot traffic downtown. It can be a ghost town on weekdays, Perkins admits. He banks on late-week evenings and weekends, the Pier, Saturday Morning Market, and Beach Drive restaurants and nightclubs to keep him busy. He uses the lulls to recharge his vehicle.
Perkins is a former employee of Todd Persico, who runs Hop Tampa, an electric taxi service in downtown Tampa. It was Persico who approached the St. Petersburg City Council about adding electric taxis to the code, said Julie Weston, director of the city development services department.
The vehicles must be registered with the city and carry the same type of liability insurance required of cabs, and can travel only on streets designated for 35 mph traffic.
Persico was briefly shut down in Tampa after taxi operators there lobbied the City Council and County Commission to toughen regulations on electric taxis. Persico still operates Hop Tampa and holds a permit for Hop St. Pete, though the latter company does not appear to be active. Persico could not be reached for comment.
Dealing with city officials in St. Petersburg was a breeze compared to Tampa, Perkins said. Selling ads here — he charges $50 on the inside and $100 outside his taxi for three-month contracts — has been brisk. He has often had a waiting list.
Perkins knows about the bad economy. His last job as a salesman vanished after the state shut down the company he worked for, Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants, for deceptive business practices, fraud and failure to deliver gas cards to consumers. Perkins was not involved in managing the company.
He invested about $12,000 to start the Green Gator. He found a used electric taxi on eBay and flew to Louisiana to pick it up.
He covers a 3-mile radius downtown, from the Old Northeast to Tropicana Field and the Old Southeast. He also rolls through Midtown's nightclub scene. He says that any customer who calls him within a reasonable distance can schedule a pickup.
One such customer is Motez Robinson Jr., a tennis instructor who lives in Bartlett Park and calls Perkins about once a week to take him to downtown bars. Robinson says he likes to leave his Honda Accord at home and not have to worry about drinking and driving.
"It's a little less expensive than a taxi but a little more intimate," Robinson said. "He's such a good conversationalist."
So far, Perkins, who has one taxi, has largely been under the radar. Marilyn Olsen, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said she was unfamiliar with the service, but added: "Anything that makes it easier for residents and tourists to get around without using a car is a good thing."
Perkins is optimistic about downtown. He is excited about holiday promotions where he hopes to shuttle customers between advertisers. And he loves talking to clients. He stamps his phone number with green ink on the back of their business cards.
He imagines the day when things look up enough to add another electric taxi, and even hire young people as chauffeurs.
"The ridership isn't here yet," he said, "but it will be."
Luis Perez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2271.