In January, Jim Travers, New Haven, Conn.'s then-director of traffic and parking, debuted a new type of card -- a card that residents can use to pay for shopping, dining and parking in the city. The Shop•Dine•Park card, similar to a debit card, can only be used at participating New Haven businesses and parking spots -- and it took some legwork to get it off the ground.

Previously the city offered Parxmart cards to drivers who wanted an easy way to pay for parking downtown. But when that agreement was up, a replacement was needed. The idea for the Shop•Dine•Park card developed over time -- "It took two years of research to actually get it going," said Mike Mohler, deputy director of traffic and parking for New Haven.

Eventually, the city found vendor ParkEasy, which helped officials set up a Discover-based card that's a semi-closed loop, meaning it's valid for any New Haven-based businesses that signs up for the program.

The No. 1 benefit of the Shop•Dine•Park card? It encourages residents to spend their money locally. "A Visa Gift card or store specific gift card can be used at any location," Mohler said. "Some may be spent here, some may spent in another city. With the Shop●Dine●Park card, 100 percent of the money is spent in New Haven and stays in our economy."

Making Shop•Dine•Park a Reality

This is the first card of its kind, although other cities have done smaller-scale card projects, Mohler said. For New Haven's project, officials started with the downtown section, and already there are nearly 275 businesses participating in the program.

The Patriot Act states that users must add their Social Security numbers to reload a non-closed loop card. Since New Haven officials wanted the card to use a semi-closed loop, they worked hard to make sure the card didn't require Social Security numbers and still complied with the law. That was the biggest challenge they faced, because they had no model to follow.

"The back-end mobilization of code, software, and financial and bank approvals that were necessary to make this happen was substantial," said Beth Fahey, program manager with ParkEasy. The Chicago-based company was challenged by the scale of the program New Haven wanted to implement -- a program that launched with almost 300 merchants and about 10,500 parking spaces all being turned on at once. ParkEasy overcame this challenge by using a well-designed infrastructure.

The second challenge was posed by the sheer number of constituencies involved in the project: the Town Green Special Services District, which has become the face of the card that sells and promotes it, the city of New Haven, the mayoral administration, and many types and varieties of shops and restaurants. This was a very sustained and intensive undertaking. However, the challenge was met with hands-on, face-to-face communication. ParkEasy sent a team to New Haven five times in the final nine months before launch to coordinate and prepare the various entities.

To make the card a success, a number of different systems needed to integrate, such as the instant promotion and discounting infrastructure. The card requires no special hardware, although the software is proprietary. It runs on a traditional financial network backbone and ties into open systems, since it must work not only in parking meters, but also in all of the restaurants and shops. Months of intensive programming were put into making the card a reality.

Mohler couldn't say exactly how much the program cost the city, but the cost to individuals who want to use the program is a one-time $3.95 charge, which pays for each card and continuation of the program.

Moving Shop•Dine•Park Forward

The program's second phase, which will be implemented in the spring, involves making the card reloadable, which will allow users to monitor what items are purchased. For Yale students, for example, using this feature might mean they'll spend their money on responsible purchases, such as books and food, Mohler said, rather than wasting it at the bar.

The third phase will allow area businesses to send text messages with special promotions to cardholders, for which the city needed buy-in from the business community. If a cardholder parks at a meter near Zinc Restaurant, for example, that establishment can send him a message that says he'll save 10 percent on his bill if he uses the Shop•Dine•Park card.

The city plans to expand the program beyond the downtown area, which entails getting the names and addresss of additional businesses and making sure they accept Discover Card. There are no additional fees or processes for them to get started.

Scott Amundson  |  Contributing Writer

Scott Amundson has written for a number of fine publications, including Attorney-at-Law Magazine and The Suit Magazine.