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Parking garage exec shakes his past

A Florida entrepreneur seeks success in Dubai while he fights a lawsuit in New Jersey.

By Scott Barancik, Times Staff Writer
Published May 6, 2007


The man hired to build the world's largest automated-parking garage is a 6-foot-4 engineer with the Renaissance-sounding name of Royce Savoy Monteverdi.

Construction on the 1, 200-car garage is under way in oil-rich Dubai, a rapidly emerging international finance center best known as Michael Jackson's latest playground. In an e-mail exchange from the Persian Gulf city, Monteverdi said the huge project and three others there have freed him to ponder a new career in the more rarefied world of architecture.

You may recall Monteverdi's Pinellas Park company, Robotic Parking. Its sole surviving project, a 324-car debacle in Hoboken, N.J., has been the subject of occasional St. Petersburg Times coverage since 2001. But you won't recall him by this name. That's because until about a year ago, Royce Savoy Monteverdi was known to the world only as Gerhard Haag.

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Haag, 54, is an American success story for the Globalization Era. Raised in the Black Forest village of Ebhausen, he says he fled Germany in 1993 to escape religious persecution. His family re-emerged in Clearwater, the spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology. Haag, who is a Scientologist, quickly divined that America's traffic-choked cities needed a modern approach to parking.

His elegant design, inspired by automated garages back home, would save space, cut emissions and slash labor costs. A driver pulls into a ground-floor entry way, turns off the engine, grabs a ticket and walks away. Unmanned computers locate an empty bay inside the system's stacked-box grid and move the car there via a series of horizontal and vertical axes. A returning driver simply inserts his ticket into a reader and waits 60 to 120 seconds for the electronic valet system to deliver his car.

All Haag needed was proof that the concept could work. In 1997, he unveiled a prototype in Leetonia, Ohio. Hundreds of developers and municipal officials made the pilgrimage to see it in action. Among those who left impressed were representatives from the parking-starved city of Hoboken, N.J.

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Hoboken officials soon sought bids to build a 324-car automated garage. In 1998, the winning contractor hired Robotic to design and install the necessary software.

Local enthusiasm ran high. The computer-run garage would offer twice the capacity of a conventional garage and, as America's first, would cast a warm spotlight on Hoboken. Haag, meanwhile, could expect a torrent of contract offers if the project succeeded.

Glitches emerged early, however. After trading bitter charges of fraud and incompetence, the contractor fired Robotic, which promptly sued for reinstatement. Problems persist today. Hoboken's garage is operating at only partial capacity, and its computer system requires human input. In December, Robotic filed suit to block a successor from repairing the patented software.

Spokesman Jeff Faria insists Robotic would have had the facility running flawlessly if not for interference from corrupt competitors and political "thugs." But he admits the negative publicity "crippled" Robotic's reputation in the United States.

Fortunately, an opportunity emerged in the Middle East.

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Dubai, a gleaming city-state roughly the size and population of Hillsborough County, is awash in petrodollars. Financial services giants from across the world are fighting for a toehold in its nascent financial district, a tax-free haven some have dubbed "Wall Street." High-rise buildings are going up at a mad clip.

The developers behind a twin-tower project called Emirates Financial Towers decided to incorporate an automated garage in their design. Haag wanted in, but he knew he was at a disadvantage. The problem wasn't just with Robotic's past. There was the issue of his religion, which does not enjoy universal acceptance. And there were the roughly 20 criminal charges he faced, and beat, before leaving Germany - including allegations of accounting fraud, employing illegal workers, and laundering money for the church. "All these stories dog him, stuff about Scientology, and he didn't want it interfering with his deal with the Arabs over there, " Faria said.

Haag developed a three-pronged strategy. To assuage fears about Robotic's competence, he would bring the developers to Hoboken, show them the garage, and explain why Robotic was not to blame for its flaws. To avoid dragging Robotic's reputation into the deal, he would license its technology to a Middle Eastern group. Last, he would change his name. On Nov. 10, 2005, Haag submitted a four-page, handwritten application to the Pinellas County clerk's office.

A month later, he was Royce Savoy Monteverdi.

Faria, who was unaware of the name change at the time, wouldn't have advised it. "In America, if you know somebody's got an alias, or an a.k.a., they've got to be hiding something, running from something, " he said. "And Haag is." But the plan worked. In November 2006, Robotic announced the first of four deals in Dubai. The drought was over.

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Haag hasn't given up on the U.S. market, where he goes by his original name. He said Robotic has a contract with the Hollywood Grande in Florida and many other deals in negotiation. This month it will host a booth at the International Parking Institute's annual conference in Tampa.

Faria, an unpaid spokesman, seems more excited about the New Jersey lawsuit, which he believes will bring Robotic $10-million to $100-million in damages. "If Robotic wins, " he disclosed, "I'll get a percentage."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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