Thursday, December 25, 2008

Shuttle Service Stalling Out

Lack of participation from bars threatens designated driver program

By Sondra Murphy
Lack of merchant participation in the Ojai Valley shuttle service is likely to put the brakes on the program before its first anniversary.
Dutch Van Hemert began the downtown shuttle service last winter with The Village Jester owner Nigel Chisholm after observing that there was no night transportation services for people patronizing local bars or restaurants that serve alcohol. As an airport shuttle driver, Van Hemert had the vehicle and license to provide a weekend shuttle for nightlife patrons and Chisholm contacted other merchants to garner support.
According to Van Hemert, about a dozen merchants got on board and contributed from $25 to $80 per weekend, depending on their operating hours, to cover Van Hemert’s fuel and maintenance. Van Hemert said there was rarely any overage to compensate him for his time.
“I’ve been doing this for 11 months now and every weekend a couple hundred people use it, but all the bars and restaurants have pulled out,” he said. “They say the economy is bad and they can’t afford it, but it’s only going to get worse if I quit.”
Van Hemert said that people call him from every corner of the Ojai Valley and he has even gotten calls from the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa and Ojai Valley Community Hospital. “I have driven many people home from the hospital who got fixed up and needed a ride home,” Van Hemert said. “I work on a gratuity basis. If they don’t give you anything, they don’t give you anything. About 80 percent of the people I drive are cool and about 20 percent are generous. Over the months I’ve learned who is generous and who is cheap.” He estimated that it has cost him nearly $29,000 this year to keep going.
Besides the financial strain, Van Hemert has not had a weekend off since starting the shuttle service. “I think that over the 11 months I’ve been doing this I’ve driven well over 10,000 people,” said Van Hemert. “It works, but doesn’t cover the cost. People tell me, ‘We’re so happy we can drive around town and not get hit by a drunk driver,’ but I haven’t found anyone interested in contributing. I don’t have the money to support it anymore. I need help. There are so many people in Ojai who have so much money that it would be a drop in the bucket. That’s the sad part.”
Hill Top Bar bartender Sonia Miller is one of the merchants who had liked the idea. A previous supporter of the shuttle, Miller is no longer participating. “We stopped it about two months ago,” she said.
“We didn’t have enough customers using it. With the economy slowing, business is so slow we just can’t afford it anymore.”
Chisholm said The Village Jester, The Hub and Feast Bistro were the last of the participating mer-chants who quit in October. With only three businesses participating but all benefiting, their enthusiasm waned.
“I am uncomfortable that there didn’t appear to be enough interest from other businesses to keep the shuttle viable,” said Chisholm. “I think it’s a tremendous loss to the community. Undoubtedly, the shuttle started by Dutch and myself has saved lives and countless dollars that DUI arrests cost.”
Van Hemert is reluctant to charge users for the service or look for possible government assistance for the service. “There’s all kinds of paperwork involved if you charge for the service,” said Van Hemert. “The Department of Transportation, they put you through the wringer.”
Chisholm thinks that tokens sold by participating merchants could be one solution. That system would let businesses pay Van Hemert back for customers who already paid for the service.
If the shuttle stops, Van Hemert does not expect anyone else to be interested in providing the type of service he performs. “I don’t think there are many people who are going to put up with it. People tell me I’m nuts. I had my stepson drive with me one weekend and he said, ‘You’re crazy. You’re absolutely crazy.’ But visitors say the downtown shuttle is the coolest thing ever, that few other communities offer this kind of thing.”
If the lack of funding continues, Van Hemert expects to stop the service at the end of this year. Chisholm is disappointed. “I’m not exactly sure that letting the shuttle die is the right choice for this community,” he said. “I would hope that, in the near future, all local businesses would see fit to support the service for what is a minimal cost.” He pointed out that if all participating merchants helped support the shuttle, the cost would go down.
“How much is one life worth?” asked Chisholm.

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