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Charlotte entrepreneurs bringing Bitcoin to the parking meter

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
ST_Passport Parking
T. Ortega Gaines - ogaines@charlotteobserver.com
Bob Youakim, left, and Charlie Youakim, co-founders of PassportParking.

Charlotte-based PassportParking Inc. is bringing a new form of currency to the parking meter: Bitcoin.

The South-End-based company offers a one-stop, cloud-based command center for cities, universities and private operators to oversee parking, ticketing enforcement and event management.

Passport has high-profile clients across the country, including the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Omaha, Neb., and Asheville and California’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Now, the company says, it’s the first of its kind to facilitate the use of Bitcoin to pay for parking in lots and metered spaces using its mobile-pay service.

Bitcoin is a digital currency that’s been around since 2009 but began gaining widespread attention in 2013.

Here’s how it works: anyone can download a program on their computer and use certain online exchanges to convert dollars to bitcoins. The bitcoins can then be transferred directly – and anonymously – between two users anywhere in the world, without credit card fees.

Bitcoin is just one of many different means of payment in addition to credit cards that Passport wants to make available to parkers and parking lot operators, says managing partner Bob Youakim. They’re also exploring ways to use Google Wallet, PayPal and even gold, he said.

“You see the Targets of the world get hacked,” Youakim said, and the anonymity of Bitcoin is more attractive.

Passport is not the first Charlotte-area business to embrace Bitcoin.

Cornelius-based Waterbean Coffee did its first Bitcoin transaction on Dec. 8, barely more than a month after the shop opened.

Owner Tony Vo says he was the first in the area to accept the new currency, and has since been approached by a window-cleaner and a sandwich shop owner, both interested in setting up Bitcoin payments for their customers. Now other coffee shops are accepting it, too, he said.

Vo researched Bitcoin at the prompting of one of his regular customers. When he saw how easy it was to accept bitcoins and convert them instantly to U.S. dollars that are deposited in his bank account, he registered with BitPay, the Georgia-based bitcoin merchant processing provider.

He estimates that 20 to 30 customers have used it so far. Most heard he accepted it through the Bitcoin Charlotte meetup group.

“It’s cool for them, too, because they have the money, they’re just never able to spend it,” Vo said. “Customers really want places to accept (Bitcoin) so they can use it.”

Mike Degaray, office manager of his wife, Jennifer’s practice, Integrative Chiropractic and Natural Medicine in Indian Trail, says they also take Bitcoin as payment.

He points to other ideas people once thought were crazy – like the internet and Amazon – and look how those turned out, he says.

“I don’t own a single Bitcoin ... but we are warm to the idea,” he said. “Why not experiment?”

Passport Parking was founded in 2010 by Bob Youakim, a former investment banking vice president at Wells Fargo Securities, and his cousin Charlie Youakim, who had helped design and develop the electronics systems used by many urban parking decks.

In December, the 15-employee company, secured $6 million in its first round of venture financing.

The financing – led by Grotech Ventures, a Washington D.C.-based venture capital firm, and Nashville-based investment firm Relevance Capital – represented a vote of confidence in Charlotte’s growing start-up scene.

Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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