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VALLEY AND VENTURA COUNTY | VENTURA COUNTY REVIEW

Harbor Collective Hopes Trolley Will Ring In More Business

September 08, 1998|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Business owners at Channel Islands Harbor are hoping that the clang, clang, clang of a single trolley will inspire the ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching of cash registers.

Led by Whale's Tail restaurant owner Michael Koutnik, representatives of the harbor's hotel, restaurant and merchant communities have formed the Channel Islands Trolley Group. Since late August, the collective has been chartering a trolley to transport visitors around the harbor on Friday and Saturday evenings in an effort to boost business.

The free trolley, which can accommodate 38 passengers, will run through Oct. 10. The eight-week trial run will enable Channel Islands Harbor tenants to test the viability of offering daily trolley service during spring and summer months, and possibly year-round.

"We find too often in studies we have done that people come in to a specific business and then they leave the harbor," Koutnik said. "Both on water and on land, we need to retain a connectivity of businesses. I've been working with other lessees in the development of a new master plan for Channel Islands Harbor, and the key word is connectivity."

For now, the trolley makes a continuous series of 30-minute routes around the harbor from 6 to 10 p.m. Stops include Koutnik's business and the other members of the trolley group--the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Resort, Casa Sirena Hotel and Resort-Lobster Trap restaurant and the Fisherman's Wharf area.

The trolley is operated by the Ventura County Airporter, which leases it to the Channel Islands Trolley Group for $700 per weekend. Ventura County, which owns the harbor, has underwritten half the cost of signage and maintenance of the car.

When not at Oxnard's Channel Islands Harbor, the old-style trolley--with brass rails, oak seats and etched windows--runs five days a week between Ventura Harbor, Seaside Park and downtown Ventura, and is rented out for private parties and special events.

Koutnik said results over the first few weeks of the transportation experiment have been positive, and he expects the trolley to help harbor tenants through a traditionally slow tourism period.

"At the end of Labor Day, the doors virtually slam shut on the harbor, so we need to create a reason for people to come here," he said.

"Our ridership [one] Saturday was in excess of 90 people--the daytime trolley in Ventura doesn't hit 90 people," he said. "The hotels have been very aggressive in getting on the bandwagon and letting the guests know about this."

Along with bringing more guests in, Koutnik hopes that the trolley will inspire visitors to lengthen their stay.

"I see people coming up for a day trip to Channel Islands Harbor," he said. "With the trolley, as they explore, they will find more things to do and they will stay the day. What was a half-day experience will become a full-day experience. When they come back, maybe the next time they will make it a two-day experience."

Trolley owner Clayton Vail said she has been impressed with the popularity of her car at Channel Islands Harbor.

"It's going remarkably well," Vail said, "possibly, in part, because it's new and novel, or possibly because it's on a short loop. Ventura's trolley is more of a tourist attraction, with the ride [featuring] a lot of dialogue on the history of Ventura.

"With the Channel Islands trolley, from the standpoint of being a guest at a hotel and you want to go to a restaurant or a nightclub, it's a very quick means of transportation."

To date, Vail said, no other business collectives have come forward to rent the trolley.

"I doubt it will happen--I can't think of another area with a concentrated need," she said. "But my hope is that the Channel Islands Harbor merchants, in collaboration with the city and harbor district, will be able to adjunct off the success they are having now and have added service in coming years."

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