Couple wins micro-grant in small business contest
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Winston-Salem’s downtown streets have blossomed after dark with bar and club goers flocking to areas like the Arts District and Fourth Street. But a new late night mode of transportation could help make downtown more accessible at night for people looking for variety in their evening outings.
Local entrepreneurs Reid and Kirsten Hinsley are in the process of putting together a startup taxi service that would use golf carts to transport people between the central business district and the industrial district. The Hinsleys started the website http://www.camelcitynightlife.com/ one year ago as a way of advertising local bars and specials.
“It started out with about seven of us, and within our group of friends it seemed like such a great idea that they just kept telling other people,” Reid Hinsley said. “I met Kirsten, and I told her about it. She thought it was a great idea and saw potential to develop it into something bigger and she was the driving force by making it bigger.”
In the process, they realized how much life there was downtown and how the neighborhoods could be better connected at night.
“By running the pages, we saw that people kind of stayed in the pockets of where they parked,” he said.
One day in October 2013 the thought of owning a golf cart crossed Reid Hinsley’s mind, and it was then that a light bulb went off. He and his wife brought the idea to the city manager, a taxi inspector and Councilman James Taylor Jr. for consideration.
“We had always talked about different ways of trying to drive more traffic,” Kirsten Hinsley said. “You know when we first started going out and doing the nightlife stuff we didn’t realize how much there was and the extent of how much you could walk during the course of it, and how much gets left out when you go out for the night and you just typically stay on 4th Street. Sometimes you might go to 4th and Trade but there’s so many other places.”
In January they decided to enter the city’s small business plan competition. The city received 35 business proposals for the competition in February and 20 were invited to submit a more detailed plan, of which only 14 followed through.
The Hinsleys won the competition with their business plan for their company Camel City Caravans and were awarded a $5,000 startup grant in addition to a $5,000 micro-loan. They plan to purchase their first two golf carts with the money. Kirsten Hinsley said they would not charge for rides because the service will be entirely funded by sponsors. She said there are currently more than 20 sponsors standing by as soon as the project moves forward.
“We were particularly impressed with the Camel City Caravans plan, because it is creative, it complements existing downtown businesses, it serves those who live and work downtown, and it gives downtown visitors easier access to all dining and entertainment options that downtown offers,” Small Business Loan Committee Chairman Doug Atkinson said in a press release.
The idea for the taxi service comes at a time when small rideshare services like Uber are gaining momentum in cities across the country. Raleigh has a night bus and several other taxi services that operate during nighttime hours.
The city’s public safety committee is currently in the process of drafting an ordinance that would make the operation of golf carts on city streets legal in Winston-Salem. Reid Hinsley said state law currently allows electric vehicles to ride on public streets but not gas ones. Yet it also gives individual municipalities authority to override this with their own statutes, which is what the couple has been fighting for.
“We don’t want to jump ahead and purchase a cart until this law is actually passed,” he said.
Reid Hinsley said they would eventually like to use electric golf carts but need to start out by using gas because they can operate for longer periods than electric.
“An electric cart is about an hour’s worth of use, and then you end up pushing a dead cart,” he said. “Once we’re able to afford multiple carts where we can swap carts in and out as they die, we’ll move into electric carts.”
The Hinsleys said they have been attending public safety committee meetings the past year. The committee has been very receptive to their idea. Kirsten Hinsley said she understands the bureaucratic process, and says the feedback has been helpful.
“It has been a lot of work and a lot of research,” she said. “I think it should be though. If we’re going to be out there representing a lot of people and ourselves, we really need to know what we’re doing and have everybody’s best interests at heart.”
She said right now, citizens can help them by voicing their support to local leaders.
“The best thing that anybody can do to show their support and how much they like the idea is just by writing council members,” she said.
Councilman Taylor said not all of the details for the ordinance have been worked out yet, but it would require the carts to not exceed a 20-mile per hour speed limit and observe all other traffic rules.
“They will have to abide by the same safety regulations and laws that regular vehicles have to abide by,” he said.
Taylor said the committee should have an ordinance drafted in time for its next meeting on October 20. He called the service a “win-win,” and thinks it will help to better connect downtown’s neighborhoods.
“We’re always looking for ways where we can help small businesses and provide a service for our constituents,” he said. “We have to find a way to link every part of downtown. You’ve got the entertainment district, the arts district, the innovation district so there has to be a way to link all of those districts and I think that this business is that link.” !