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Kayak commute dream is a citizen-investor idea

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 02:05 PM
TAMPA -

Imagine commuting during morning rush hour with no traffic and no red lights.

As cars and frustrated motors idle on the bridge over the Hillsborough River, you slide gracefully and silently beneath, nothing slowing your progress but the incoming tide. You park, for free, at Curtis Hixon Riverside Park.

You've traded your car commute for a trip on a kayak you don't even own.

The man behind the idea is Kenneth Cowart, a Tampa architect. The plan is modeled after bike-share programs in other cities in which pedestrians pay a fee to have access to bicycles parked here and there across downtown areas.

He came up with the idea while brainstorming with a buddy about ways to make Tampa a better place to live. "Something better than a bike share," he said, "a kayak share."

It's just in the idea stage, he said. There are no cost estimates, no research to determine what insurance or permits are needed.

So how does a bright idea from an ordinary person gather enough steam to be noticed?

Cowart turned to Citizinvestor, a unique online service sparked by a couple of Tampa entrepreneurs who say that some worthwhile but unfunded projects, such as a kayak share, can still happen in times of government budget crunches.

Crowd funding — making community investors out of ordinary citizens — is the answer, said Citizinvestor cofounder Jordan Raynor. "Petitions come from anybody," he said. "It's a great and effective way for citizens to get the ear of city government. We work with whoever starts a petition and help them bring it to city hall in the hopes the city will consider the project."

If the city is interested, city officials and staff help plan the project but with no obligations to pay for it. The money would come from grass-roots donations, Raynor said.

On the website, a handful of petitions are listed, along with one project, an autumn tree-planting initiative in Philadelphia that already has started taking pledges online.

The goal for the tree-planting project is $16,000 in just over two months. In the first six days, more than $1,600 has been pledged.

"We haven't even been launched a week yet and all that money has been donated," Raynor said. "We're very optimistic."

Everything else on the website is in the petition stage, ranging from a huge Milwaukee street car proposal to a dog park in Chicago to bicycle repair stations in St. Petersburg.

Raynor said the idea came from a citizen-funded project on Davis Islands.

The swimming pool there had fallen into disrepair and the city had no money for a fix. So residents held fundraising events and even went door-to-door to raise money.

The project turned out to be a success and became the model for Citizinvestor, Raynor said.

Citizinvestor is for "all these projects coming in that the city had budgeted out, knew of the costs, had all the permits but lacked the money," Raynor said.

"We know that some projects, citizens really want. The Davis Islands pool is one example. They went to the mayor, and said they wanted this, but there was no money available. So they raised money themselves,'' Raynor said.

He said Citizinvestors, which is paid 5 percent of successful projects, are in contact with 35 cities about community projects that are ready to be implemented but lack funding.

Besides taking ideas from citizens and marshaling them into projects, Citizinvestor also works with local governments to identify projects already approved but cut out of budgets, Raynor said.

"We pose those projects to citizens through the website, and they invest in the projects they care about the most. Credit cards are charged only if 100 percent of the project is funded."

Even in a difficult economy?

"We believe citizens want to make their communities better and they don't want to wait 10 years for the government to do it,'' Raynor said.

"We want to spark a rise of micro philanthropists," he said.

As for the kayak-sharing idea, Cowart said the project, if it happens, will bring Tampa, its residents and the river closer together.

The Hillsborough River runs through the neighborhoods just north of downtown and spills into Hillsborough Bay at the north end of Davis Islands. Its slow-moving current rolls past several city parks at which kayak kiosks can be set up, Cowart said.

People can buy access to the kayaks through systems similar to the parking kiosks that now manage parking in downtown, Cowart said.

He proposed kiosks at Lowry Park, Rivercrest Park, The Heights of Tampa, Curtis Hixon Riverfront Park, the Tampa Convention Center, Channelside, Harbor Island and Davis Islands. From end to end the aquatic trail stretches 6 miles.

"As residents of Tampa," the proposal says, "we still feel disconnected from the water. If you don't personally own a boat, how do you get to the river? If you live in a downtown high rise, where do you keep a boat?

"We need a way for the residents of Tampa to re-engage with our river."

Cowart, 38, who has lived in Tampa for about 10 years, doesn't own a kayak. Nor does he have a car that can tote a kayak, nor does he live on the river or have access to a dock.

"So," he said, "I think a kayak share would be good."


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760
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