By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany news bureau
SLIDELL – There is little disagreement about the fact that a Bike Share operation in St. Tammany Parish would be a great amenity for residents across the North Shore.
However, the idea to utilize a national consulting firm and probably a national operator with deep pockets for the capital investment needed has not drawn the same enthusiasm from all business corners.
A parishwide Bike Share operation began to gain steam earlier this year when Northshore Community Foundation (NCF) President Susan Bonnett Bourgeois brought the idea to Parish President Pat Brister. Bourgeois said she had seen similar operations in other cities—both big and small—and knew it was right for St. Tammany.
“The cities that have them are just like St. Tammany—progressive, environmentally aware—the entire idea piqued my interest and I knew we should discuss it for here,” she said.
A Bike Share is basically a bike rental operation that is available at many kiosk locations throughout the parish. Due to St. Tammany Parish having the unique Tammany Trace that runs for 26 miles from the east to the west it seemed ideal to put most of the kiosks on or near the Trace.
Bourgeois brought the idea to Brister after she met with Bantam Strategy Group (BSG) CEO Lindsey West and received support from the parish president. Bantam had already set up Bike Share operations in several other cities.
“She told me that with the Tammany Trace we were the perfect place for a Bike Share,” Bourgeois related.
As the question arose about involving local bike rental businesses in the mix it has led to “misinformation,” according to Bourgeois and questions about why a national operator and national consulting firm like Bantam should reap the benefits.
Bourgeois said that if the interested parties support the Bike Share, meaning major cities, the parish, the state and Pelican Park, each would be asked to put up $25,000 as seed money to get it off the ground. The money would also be used to seek a sponsor for the capital investment needed to purchase the 30 kiosks and 300 bikes—a cost expected to be approximately $1 million.
Bourgeois already met with the mayors of cities in the parish and most seemed interested, but now they must go back to their own city or parish council groups to see if the seed money will be allotted. Bourgeois said she has already gotten a commitment from at least half of those needed.
While West said the parish needs to have at least $170,000 for the study, consultant and work needed to create an operable Bike Share, “I still figure $200,000 since I’ve been involved in these things before and it always costs a little more than you figure.”
If the consultant can secure a sponsor then the parish will not have any financial liability to be concerned with, but if a sponsor for the Bike Share program is not found, a deal must be created whereby an operator is selected and they will run the Bike Share, with the parish getting a percentage of the profits—if they are able to get it to that point.
Initial estimates suggest there needs to be 300 bikes purchased to set up the program and they must be rented twice a day to break even. If the program does not pay for itself it must have a corporate sponsor to make up the difference. Without a corporate sponsor the financial burden could be back with the parish.
The Covington Business Association (CBA) discussed the matter at its monthly meeting and polled members there, receiving close to 50 responses for a five-question survey. In the end, CBA President Bard Schroeder issued a statement on behalf of the CBA Board of Directors that said “We do not support the funding of a Bike Share…we also believe the proposed program will not be successful, nor enhance our quality of life on a local level, and therefore should not be funded” by the parish of Covington.
In the end, an overwhelming number of the CBA members rejected the idea if it did not allow local businesses to be involved, even though the information about a $1 million investment was not explained in its entirety at the meeting. Group members on hand were simply told that a Bike Share was being considered, with no representative from the Northshore Community Foundation available at that time to answer questions.
Patrick Brooks, with Brooks’ Bike Shop in Covington, said the plan to rent 300 bikes is beyond unrealistic and he, along with other bike shop owners, think local businesses need to be included at some level.
“To break even, their plan would need to see all the bikes rented twice a day. That will never happen here,” he said. “We are not a big city that might do that. I have many weekdays when I don’t rent one bike. That’s why we only need about 10 locations from one end of the parish to the other.”
However, Bourgeois said there is a very small possibility that any local bike shop could capitalize the start-up costs of $1 million, not to mention the liability insurance cost.
Bantam Strategy Group already has a Bike Share operation in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and the Crescent City operation is completely sponsored by Blue Cross & Blue Shield.
“As much as we want local bike shops to benefit from this it is simply too costly for most of them to consider,” Bourgeois said. “In other cities where Bike Share was started they saw that biking was elevated overall and bike shops saw their business grow—nobody ended up going out of business.”
She added the point that when Rooms to Go brought its mega-warehouse furniture store to the eastern side of the parish there was not one of the 10 existing furniture stores in St. Tammany that went out of business.
“Having a Bike Share around makes people think about riding bikes. That helps all the bike shops in general,” she added.
Brooks, a five year owner of Brooks’ Bike Shop, said he had a similar idea on a smaller scale that he brought to the director of the Tammany Trace in March of this year, but was told it wouldn’t be fair to allow his business locations on the Trace since there were other bike rental shops in the parish.
Within months the news of the parish supported Bike Share began to go public and since then Brooks, along with Bayou Adventure in Lacombe and Shack de Ville in Mandeville are working on their own smaller, scaled-down Bike Share business operation.
Brooks said they want to set up 10 bike rental locations from one end of the parish to the other, with most near the Trace. The group is moving forward with the Northshore Bike Share Alliance that will set up bike rental locations on business properties that will not violate the parish’s Trace land ownership.
“This won’t cost the parish or cities a dime,” he said. “We are going to do this ourselves as a business venture and then any money will all remain in St. Tammany Parish.”
“We would all love to see some kind of Bike Share program,” Brooks added. “But it needs to benefit the locals—both the businesses, and with the money all staying in our parish.
“If this national consulting company goes forward with this it will likely be a national company running the thing and the money will all go out of the state,” he added.
If the Northshore Community Foundation does raise the $200,000 seed money, then Bantam Strategy Group would receive $59,000 for project coordination, system feasibility and size determination, cost estimates and an implementation strategy. In Phase II the agreement with Bantam would pay them $103,200 to bring a turn-key operation to the parish. Securing a corporate sponsor is seen as the key to ensuring the parish will not have any financial liability in the plan.
BSG currently has Bike Share programs operating in Birmingham, Ala., Little Rock, Ark., Baton Rouge and two Alabama cities, while negotiating for Bike Share programs in St. Tammany Parish and Pensacola, Fla.