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Pinellas Park's garage of tomorrow

Robotic Parking's automated garage concept promises to pack in twice as many cars as a standard parking garage, plus cut down on pollution, energy use, labor costs and frustration for drivers trolling endlessly for an open space. But critics argue the company has tried before but hasn't been able to reach its Jetsons-like goal.

By SCOTT BARANCIK

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2001


Robotic Parking's automated garage concept promises to pack in twice as many cars as a standard parking garage, plus cut down on pollution, energy use, labor costs and frustration for drivers trolling endlessly for an open space. But critics argue the company has tried before but hasn't been able to reach its Jetsons-like goal.

PINELLAS PARK -- If Gerhard Haag delivers on his promise, developers and civic leaders from across the country soon will descend on Pinellas Park to marvel at his high-tech solution to urban America's parking problems.

Never mind that this city is hardly known as a hotbed of new technology or that it has no parking problem to solve.

Haag, a German-born, 6-foot-4 tower of sinew and muscle, insists he's about to turn part of the ramshackle factory where Checkers once built its drive-through burger stands into a totally automated garage. And he says he has raised about $7-million from investors, plus thousands more in state and local tax incentives, to help him do it.

There's just one problem: Haag has made the same promise before. A prototype he built in tiny Leetonia, Ohio, drew scores of visitors but has since been called a sham by critics. A 324-car garage his company, Robotic Parking Inc., helped build for congested Hoboken, N.J., is almost two years overdue and mired in litigation.

"We paid them $3-million, and we have a building that's empty," said Donald Pellicano, chairman of the Hoboken Parking Authority.

Detractors say Robotic is peddling a product that doesn't work. Company officials dismiss such talk as the blathering of ax-grinding litigants, frustrated competitors and ill-informed consultants.

One thing is certain: Gerhard Haag has proved adept at capitalizing on the public's fascination with automation and its desperate need for affordable parking. Whether the job is raising money or inspiring glowing articles in the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle, the 48-year-old engineer has been up to the task.

His style is part engineering expertise, part exuberant salesmanship and part hyperbole.

In April, for example, Robotic issued a news release citing the "close race between Pinellas Park and Hoboken to become the first with such a garage." The memo neglected to point out that work on the full-scale Hoboken project had ceased six months earlier when Robotic was fired, or that the Pinellas Park garage is being designed primarily as a demonstration facility, not for parking by the general public.

And a list of testimonials issued by Haag's company contains glowing but anonymous quotes.

"I know Gerhard Haag personally, and besides being a visionary designer, he is also a person of high integrity," said someone identified only as "E.G., computer company executive."

More than bragging rights are at stake. If Robotic succeeds, it could reap a windfall of pent-up garage contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. If not, it could lose its remaining credibility and its first-American-on-the-moon claim as a technological pioneer.

Haag insists it's in the bag. "It's a great technology," he said. "Pinellas County will be the first place in the country with a running automatic garage."

* * *

Imagine that someday, while driving through the downtown of some busy metropolis, you decide to use one of Gerhard Haag's robotic garages.

You pull into one of several open bays, switch off the engine, lock the car and take a ticket. As you walk away, the bay door shuts, your car spins 180 degrees, and then it's moved via lifts and carriers into a computer-selected space. The spaces are essentially steel cages stacked one atop another.

When you want to pick up your car, you insert your ticket and payment into a machine located outside the garage. The computer locates the car, retrieves it and delivers it to an open bay. Total waiting time: one to two minutes. Total human intervention: zero.

Haag's vision may sound like a Rube Goldberg drawing or a contraption from the Jetsons. But there's a down-to-earth logic behind it.

By eliminating concrete ramps, columns and ceilings, the automatic garage could hold twice as many cars as a conventional one. It also could reduce toxic emissions, cut energy consumption, slash labor costs and spare drivers the hassle of trolling endlessly for an open slot.

"Robotic Parking may not make parking fun," an article in the Natural Resources Defense Council's Amicus Journal said, "but it will make it safer and more convenient."

Besides, automatic garages have operated for years in densely populated cities such as Tokyo and Paris, where narrow roads prohibit curbside parking.

Haag's introduction to robotic garages came in Stuttgart, Germany, where he worked for, and later bought, a steel company whose corporate parent built automatic garages. Intrigued, Haag asked an attendant to let him ride through one of the garages in his car. He decided he could design a better one.

But he also decided his future was not in Germany. Haag is an adherent of the Church of Scientology, which has maintained that the German government and businesses have systematically discriminated against its members. Some German officials have portrayed the church as a dangerous cult. Haag said he found it more and more difficult to obtain business loans. He was prohibited from purchasing assets of the former East German government.

And, he says, he was falsely accused of nearly 20 crimes, including fraudulent accounting, employing illegal workers and laundering money for the Church of Scientology.

Haag said he stood trial and was acquitted on all charges. That cannot be confirmed independently; a German government spokesman in Washington said criminal records are not public documents in his country. But Haag's German lawyer, Gerd Samson, wrote in an affidavit, "He is a free man in this country."

Haag said he sold his steel company for about $12-million. He moved his family to Clearwater, the Scientologists' spiritual headquarters.

Wasting no time, he applied for a patent on his garage, founded Haag Land & Building Development Inc. and Robotic Parking Inc., and began pitching projects. One that went nowhere was a 38-story condominium tower he proposed for downtown Clearwater, complete with an automatic garage at its base.

Nor did he succeed in building free-standing garages he proposed for Tampa and Clearwater Beach. But not even personal tragedy -- a young son was hit and killed by a car while bicycling in 1995 -- or a subsequent divorce derailed him.

Haag realized he needed proof his garage would work. He hired an Ohio company to build a prototype and an adjacent factory in Leetonia, a town of 2,000 about 20 miles southwest of Youngstown. The town's mayor warmly welcomed Robotic Parking and Haag, its president and chief executive, for the jobs they would create in a region battered by steel plant closures.

Hundreds of developers and municipal officials made pilgrimages to the garage upon its completion in 1997.

Since then, however, a number of those who witnessed the demo have questioned what they saw. All agree that the cars moved up, down and laterally. But was the Leetonia garage truly automatic? Were its movements entirely orchestrated by a computer's "fuzzy logic" as promised, or did a person armed with a computer mouse tell the car where to go, vector by vector? The answer could be the difference between waiting two minutes for a Robotic garage to deliver your car or stewing in a long line.

Dick Beebe, a longtime consultant to the Hoboken Parking Authority from Mount Prospect, Ill., is suspicious. He says he saw the garage perform only manually. Next time, he jokes, "I'll bring cameras, flashlights, clipboards, tape measures, DNA samples, the whole bit."

So will Frank Belgiovine, whose Hackensack, N.J., construction company, the Belcor/Megan Group LLC, successfully bid with Robotic to win the $6.2-million Hoboken contract. Every time his engineers went to Leetonia, he says, there was some excuse why the garage wasn't fully operational. He said he is convinced someone was telling the computer what to do, "sort of the wizard behind the curtain in the control room."

Even Robotic's former chief engineer says the garage wasn't automatic. "Not in any way, shape or form," says Brandon resident Wayne Perry-Eaton, who worked on the Leetonia and Hoboken projects. "It was automatic -- as long as you told it what to do."

Haag dismisses such speculation as propaganda. Belgiovine and Perry-Eaton cannot be trusted because Robotic has sued them, he says; Belgiovine's people never came to Leetonia. Beebe, he says, is not an automatic garage expert.

The parking entrepreneur has little patience with skeptics. At one point in an interview, he demanded that a reporter promise to be fair in covering Robotic Parking. Haag stood over the reporter and leaned in, nose-to-nose. "I don't like it," he said gravely, "when people look me in the eyes and lie."

Nor is Haag reluctant to paint himself as a misunderstood visionary.

"If the people of New Jersey had listened to stories about Thomas Edison over 100 years ago," he wrote in a letter to the trade journal Parking Today, "we probably would not have had electricity and the General Electric Co."

In a subsequent edition of the magazine, Belgiovine retorted, "Thomas Edison did not try to sell the light bulb to the public until it actually existed and worked."

* * *

The debate over Robotic came to a head in Hoboken, a city of 38,577 shoehorned into 1.3 square miles. One study estimated the tiny municipality is 7,000 parking spaces short of demand.

The Belcor/Megan Group was hired in 1998 to serve as general contractor for the city-backed garage at 916 Garden St., and Robotic as its subcontractor. As the software designer and patent-holder, Robotic would get about half of the multimillion-dollar pot. The companies pledged to complete the job by October 1999.

But trouble quickly erupted at the work site. Problems with the steel beams generated a nasty exchange of letters. Belcor began riding Robotic for not completing its software design quickly enough. Robotic complained it wasn't being given sufficient time.

Deadlines came and went. The Parking Authority, on the hook for $23,000 a month on a $5-million construction loan, began charging Belcor late fees of $1,000 a day.

By Oct. 10, 2000, Belgiovine says, he'd had it with Robotic and fired the company. That night, a Robotic employee removed the company's software from work site computers. Haag now says his company's parking software was no more than six weeks from completion. Two days later, Robotic sued to be reinstated on the project. The garage, complete but for the software, has sat untouched ever since. Legal briefs continue to fly.

There were other casualties. Belcor, the main contractor, was fired and replaced by a bonding company. The city's two-term mayor, tagged with the parking failure, lost his bid for a third term in a landslide. The citizens of Hoboken had nothing to show for the eight years and approximately $10-million their Parking Authority had invested in the project.

"It's frustrating to see the garage and not be able to use it," says Hoboken resident John Branciforte, a Robotic fan who lives a block away and is one of hundreds on the waiting list for a space.

To Belgiovine, it's clear what went wrong: Haag falsified his credentials and simply is not capable of creating the software needed to automate a garage.

Take the corporate resume Robotic submitted for its joint bid with Belcor, he says. Under "references" it lists five existing automatic garages in Europe and Asia. The obvious inference, he says, is that Haag designed and built those garages. But he did not, as Haag now concedes. His former company merely provided the steel.

Looking back, Haag says, Belgiovine clearly plotted from the beginning to fabricate complaints against Robotic, fire it, then steal its intellectual property.

As evidence, he points to a letter Belgiovine sent another potential customer last year. Drawings attached to the letter were made to look like they had been drafted by Belcor, not Robotic. In fact, Belgiovine took credit for the entire Hoboken project.

To Haag, it was just another sign that he is a visionary under attack.

"It has helped me during this time to reflect on a statement made by American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King," he wrote in another letter to Parking Today. "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

* * *

Back in Leetonia, it looked as if Robotic was planning to stay a while. Village administrator Gary Phillips says Haag went before the zoning board to convert a residential property he purchased into a three-story building that would include a factory, a demo garage, an office and his home quarters. His neighbors supported the change, and it was approved.

Haag and his associates never built the structure, however. A Pinellas County broker showed them the old Checkers factory, and they decided it was exactly what they needed.

The purchase price was $1.75-million. But Robotic lined up bank funding and got an additional loan from a small group of New Jersey investors.

Pinellas Park officials sweetened the deal. Intrigued by Robotic's goal of hiring as many as 200 workers over five years and by its pledge to try to buy all its supplies in-state, the city agreed to annex the 5.5-acre property and waive $18,735 in development fees.

"We're in the process of growing," economic development director Bud Wortendyke says. "(Robotic) showed promise."

The state of Florida chipped in too, approving Robotic's application for hundreds of thousand dollars in future tax relief. Under the deal, known as a qualified tax incentive, Robotic will get as much as $5,000 for each job it creates.

At the time, Pinellas Park officials knew little about Robotic's past. Wortendyke was surprised to learn recently that the company previously had a demonstration garage in Leetonia. He also says Haag told him the company had five signed contracts to build garages and that it had been hired to "salvage" the Hoboken garage.

Haag says his new demonstration garage, in the shadow of U.S. 19, will have its grand opening by November. And while its primary purpose will be to demonstrate Robotic Parking's technology, he says he has had preliminary discussions with the city about using the 150-space garage as a secondary impound lot for towed vehicles, a storage facility for the excess inventory of auto dealers or even a safe haven for privately owned classic cars.

Once Americans become familiar with the automatic garage, he says, it will become as ubiquitous as the ATM machine. And Robotic will be there to churn out the parts and install the software. "This will be the final proof that the so-called critics are wrong," he says.

There are signs Robotic's reputation is on the mend. A company that was hired to complete the Hoboken garage, Retrotech Inc., is in negotiations with several possible subcontractors, including Haag.

"We have been ready, willing and able from day one to go back and finish what we started," said Larry Stein, who, along with his son, Robotic chief financial officer Jeff Stein, recently invested $2-million in Haag's company.

And Haag is still selling his vision, this time across Florida. According to a recent article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Robotic is discussing automatic garage projects with officials from Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Key West and Miami-Dade County.

"We're introducing something that's never been done in the United States," said Ralph Bevi, Robotic's marketing manager for Florida.

"It's worth taking a little bit of a risk," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle said.

- 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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