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San Diego
Saturday, May 25, 2024

Ability Center Modifies to Meet a Growing Demand

Auto manufacturers aren’t the only companies accommodating the demand for modified vans. San Diego-based Ability Center, Inc. has been installing adaptive equipment on vehicles for a dozen years.

Both entities have been responding to a growing market.

Ability Center, founded locally by Darrell Heath and just a few staff members in 1994, has expanded to 53 employees in four locations. Its other outlets are in Orange County, Las Vegas and a store that opened in Phoenix in March. Collectively, the stores serve 5,000 customers annually.

Ability Center sells minivans that have already been converted for wheelchair access by manufacturers such as Braun Corp. of Winamac, Ind., and Vantage Mobility International of Phoenix.

The manufacturers modify a standard Dodge, General Motors Corp., or Ford Motor Co. van, for example, by lowering the floors and adding wheelchair accessible ramps.

Ability Center store manager Terry Barton said lowered floors adds 6 to 12 inches to the height of a van, providing a clearance as high as 53 & #733; inches.

Ability Center adds the finishing touches by installing custom devices such as hand controls or a wheel lock that secures the wheelchair in the vehicle.

Alternatively, Ability Center customers may have already purchased their van at an auto dealership but it needs adjustments.

Ability Center Vice President Claudia Laird Obertreis said Ability Center would install a chairlift, and maybe raise the roof with a bubble top and extend the entrance.

Sometimes therapists are involved in choosing the right equipment. If a customer is only recently injured or diagnosed with a disease, Ability Center recommends independent driver evaluators. Staff also considers whether his or her physical condition might change.

“It may be progressive,” Laird Obertreis said. “Their condition today may not be the same as it is two years down the road. The purchase is fairly expensive, and we would want to look out in advance to pick the correct product and solution to meet their needs.”

When Ability Center opened 12 years ago, Laird Obertreis said the manufacturers were not offering as many converted vans.

“So lots of conversions were being done then,” she said. “In the last seven years the ready-made accessible vans have been available on an ongoing basis.”

Barton adds that customers often waited several months for custom-built vans that are now ready for delivery in two days or up to two weeks.

Only two years ago, foreign manufacturers joined in producing converted vans, with Toyota Sienna the first foreign lowered-floor minivan brought to market, Laird Obertreis said. Honda Motor Co. also is expected to introduce modified vans soon.

Likewise, the wheelchairs, scooters and motorized stair lifts are more often sold at the Ability Center as off-the-shelf products rather than customized equipment.

Change is for the better at Ability Center, where the nearly 30 employees are working out of a larger 18,000-square-foot building on Ruffner Street, about a block away from their previous location in two separate buildings on Ronson Road.

They were so busy moving, they had to postpone celebrating their 12th anniversary, which officially would have been April 1. Their anniversary celebration will be held the evening of May 16 instead, with an open house May 20.

“We delayed the celebration until we could get the new building organized,” Laird Obertreis said.

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Heading To Camp:

Art Street Interactive employees are gearing up for the summer camping season from their office in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

The Web development firm is expanding its online reservation and management service, called Camava, to include a larger circle of tourism-based clients.

Camava is an acronym for the campground, marina and vacation property management system developed primarily as an online tool for campground reservations.

Among Art Street Interactive’s roster of recent clients is Riverside County Regional Park, the Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum, and within the past few weeks a new service was launched for the Santee Lakes Nature Preserve, primarily a recreational vehicle park.

Next in line to use the service is Lake Camanche’s 12 parks in central California, near San Francisco. The Web service launch is expected within the next two weeks, followed by an anticipated launch for the San Bernardino parks and recreation system.

The staff of four Web developers, aided by a few contracted programmers, creates custom

Web sites for parks systems anywhere that include features to manage reservations, administration and reports. The product is customized for individual users such as the Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum, which uses Camava to organize its schedule of docents.

Art Street Interactive owner Greg Hechler, an online application director, said the clients like the database-driven flash maps that have been added recently to the Web pages to show each camp site location in relation to other amenities and facilities.

“The users get a better experience of what the camp site will look like while they’re sitting at home, so there’s no surprise when they get there,” Hechler said. “A lot of them are made right from aerial views, so they’re pretty accurate in terms of spacing or distance.”

The San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation was one of the early adopters of the reservation system. The department began using a similar product more than two years ago, before the Camava brand was introduced.

Art Street Interactive is continually upgrading the online system, which can be accessed by consumers at home, from the parks’ kiosks or ranger stations, or from each county’s reservation call centers. The latest upgrade includes point-of-sale tools that allow users to buy products from the park gift shops, including T-shirts and snacks, and gift certificates that can be e-mailed to others.

Hechler founded the Art Street Interactive business in 1985 when he was a San Diego State University student living on Art Street.

“The company moved from being a design studio to a Web design studio,” said Hechler, describing its further expansion into a database-driven, e-commerce company that catered to businesses.

Art Street Interactive’s current business model began taking shape in 1995, as its custom Web development ventures gradually engulfed online property management and reservations products. Camava was introduced less than a year ago in June 1995.

Since 2000, Hechler said gross revenues jumped from $150,000 annually to total gross revenues of nearly $1 million in 2005. Last year’s revenues were split between $600,000 for custom Web development and $300,000 for Camava services.

“It’s difficult to service a custom Web development clientele and make money at it,” Hechler said. “We satisfy our clients to a greater extent with a product. It works better because you have other clients who have the same thing, and the tech support is much easier.”

Contact Julie Gallant with technology news at

, or call her at (858) 277-6359.


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