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  1. Transportation

Uber finds partners in Tampa Bay area

TAMPA — A government agency is still trying to shut down Uber. But that hasn't prevented the rideshare company from extending its tentacles into the community and forging partnerships with hotels and bars — and, potentially, another government agency.

Uber has clashed with the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which regulates for-hire vehicles, since launching in Tampa Bay in April 2014. But while the PTC maintains Uber is unresponsive, uncooperative and a "bully," other local businesses and community events have ignored the regulatory battle.

Instead, they've agreed to partner with — and promote — the rideshare company.

PTC Chairman Victor Crist said he isn't worried about the partnerships Uber is creating in the community because he is confident the regulatory agency will win its appeal to have a judge issue an injunction to shut down the company.

But until then, Uber continues to establish itself as part of the community and build strong relationships with drivers, riders and businesses.

"They're probably thumbing their nose a little bit as well, saying, 'Fine, we're going to continue on our path of growth whether you're letting us operate here or not,' " said Perry Drake, an assistant professor of digital and social media marketing at the University of Missouri-St Louis. "They're worth multiple billions. It's a strong business model.

"They're not going to let this stand in their way of expansion."

• • •

The Epicurean Hotel introduced a new program last week in which guests can take an Uber even if they don't have the app. The concierge will use the Uber business app loaded onto an iPad to call for a ride, which is then billed to the guest's room.

"The public has really embraced Uber," Epicurean general manager Tom Haines said. "The people who are using Uber or are Uber-friendly will use Uber but will not use a cab. That's just the way they're wired."

Uber approached the Epicurean about being one of the first hotels in the country to pilot the concierge program, Haines said. He follows the debate between regulators and the company not just in Hillsborough, but in areas across the state such as Miami-Dade County.

Haines knows there's an ongoing debate over how to regulate the rideshare companies. But he said Uber provides a transportation alternative in a part of town with a lot of traffic congestion and drinking.

"The county government needs to figure out exactly what they want to do," Haines said. "Until we're told otherwise, right now they're operating and functioning and we're going to continue to work with them …

"As of now, it's a service that most people are using, so we're just trying to make that easier for people to use."

Other local establishments such as MacDinton's, Yard of Ale and the Drynk have also partnered with the rideshare company. Customers who take an Uber to any of those bars and show their receipt can receive discounts, such as half off an appetizer, $5 off their tab or no cover through the end of August.

Uber also partnered with Tampa Bay Club Sports, WaZoo beer festival at Lowry Park Zoo and Summer of Rum Festival, providing $20 ride discounts to first-time users.

"They're not looking at their current situation with regulators as stopping them from trying to expand," said Drake, who researches digital marketing and the sharing economy. "They're operating the same way they would if they were seen as legit."

The further Uber entrenches itself in the community, the more it becomes part of the landscape, Drake said, the harder it could be to get rid of them.

It's a tactic the rideshare company has used in other communities and contexts, forming national partnerships with companies such as Spotify and activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving that promote the brand and raise awareness with customers.

"We're glad the community has embraced us and that these partnerships recognize the service we're providing," said Christine Mitchell, general manger of Uber in Tampa Bay. "They recognize the value Uber is providing, and that's why they're looking to partner with us."

Crist, a county commissioner, said he wasn't surprised local business have teamed up with Uber. But he also thinks it's just a matter of time before a bar or restaurant is sued by a patron for recommending Uber.

If that driver gets in a crash or has a criminal background and harms the customer, Crist said that bar or restaurant could be at risk for promoting "an illegal and unsafe company."

"(Those businesses) don't understand the legalities and the nitty gritty of it," Crist said. "They just see it as an opportunity to bring patrons to their places."

• • •

But it's not just the hospitality industry looking to join with Uber.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority has discussed partnering with a rideshare company to solve the first-mile, last-mile problem in transit — how to get riders from where the bus ends to their ultimate destination, like a job or home.

A company like Uber or its competitor Lyft, which make use of modern technology and have a strong market presence, could be an ideal solution, said HART CEO Katharine Eagan.

Transit riders would pay a flat fare of $3 to take an Uber or Lyft within a local zone. HART would then cover the rest.

Under any potential contract, Uber would be operating as a shuttle within a public transit network and not a rideshare, so the regulations and insurance requirements would be different than what the PTC currently requires of for-hire vehicles, Eagan said.

"Even if Uber and Lyft can't come to an understanding on ridesharing, that's essentially in someone else's lane," Eagan said. "They can cross wires with the PTC, but if they're meeting our rules, then they can bid."

Eagan said she has no idea if Uber or Lyft would be interested in such a contract, but if they meet the requirements, they would be welcome to bid on the contract. HART is also looking at partnering with taxi companies and other service providers who will be able to apply during a three- or four-week window in October.

If Uber did apply and was selected, that means the rideshare company could simultaneously be partnered with one government agency while tied up in a legal battle with another.

"The forging of these partnerships makes our life harder," Crist said. "None of us enjoys being the bad guy.

"But I've got a job to do, and right now my job as chairman of the PTC is to uphold the law and the rules that were put in place to ensure basic public safety."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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