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It's just turning dark on a recent Saturday night, and the K-Line Trolley is humming down Kercheval Street in Grosse Pointe, pumping out Motown music as passengers dressed in everything from topsiders to pearls hop on and off.

At one point, the new transportation service that operates Friday and Saturday nights becomes standing room only. Holding onto the rail, passengers chat amicably, excited to try out the new Atwater Brewery or see the car show in "The Village" shopping district. All ages are represented, from newly minted college grads out for drinks to elderly women en route to fine dining to teens who don't yet have driver's licenses but are out and in search of a good time.

"I like that it's super low-key. It's super easy, too. And it's free. Free is good," said Chelsea Groustraw, who rode the trolley from her Grosse Pointe Park home to the Kercheval shopping district area with husband Ted and children Charlie, 9, and Isabel, 7.

The Groustraws are among the thousands of Grosse Pointe-area residents who like having the K-Line Trolley in town. It started in late August, and trolley organizers hoped a few hundred people might enjoy the open-air ride along one of the area's busiest thoroughfares.

They aspired to reach an average of 250 passengers nightly. To their surprise, ridership quickly grew from about 115 on the first night to more than 700 on an average Saturday. In the five weekends the K-Line has been running, ridership has reached more than 4,200 people.

As a result, business is up nicely at the area's main shopping districts, said Emily Krajniak, administrative director of the Urban Renewal Initiative Foundation.

The trolley's success comes at a dicey time for the Pointes. The Village has welcomed a number of new retailers, such as Pet Supplies Plus, that are filling the vacant storefronts left by bankruptcies from national retailers such as Borders bookseller and women's clothing retailer Coldwater Creek.

At the same time, Grosse Pointe Park is recovering from a public relations misstep when it installed a turnaround and farmers market addition bordering Detroit that some critics felt was blocking the city from the upscale suburb. The city has since worked with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to find a resolution and plans for a redesign to make it more inclusive for Detroiters.

Other cities, including Romeo, Mackinaw City and Grand Haven, have trolley services year-round or for special occasions. Most charge a small fee to ride; the K-Line Trolley is free.

The trolley runs from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays on Kercheval from Wayburn in Grosse Pointe Park to Moross in Grosse Pointe Farms. This route allows passengers to patronize restaurants on The Hill, the downtown Village and in the Park. They include Atwater, Red Crown and the soon-to-open Cornwall Bakery.

No more parking lots

Krajniak said the trolley will allow Grosse Pointe Park to avoid the need to construct additional parking lots, which encroach on the adjoining residential neighborhoods.

"The success of the K-Line is partly due to the circumstance that over 70 percent of the patrons of the local businesses are Grosse Pointe Park, City and Farms residents," Krajniak said. "The convenience of taking a short stroll to Kercheval to catch the trolley easily encourages leaving the car at home and staying local."

"Some passengers just like to take the K-Line for nothing more than an entertaining ride," said Jennifer Palms Boettcher, president and executive director of the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce and Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation. "The most popular stops have been cluster of restaurants in the Park, Luxe Bar & Grill and The Hill Seafood & Chop House on The Hill in Grosse Pointe Farms and then City Kitchen and TCBY in The Village."

The K-Line's timing coincides with another Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce initiative called "I heart GP," Palms Boettcher said, encouraging residents to put their money where their hearts are.

"Strong and thriving businesses enhance the property values and stability of every home in our community," she said. "Local support is not only good for our businesses, it is an essential part of our community's well-being."

The project itself is the result of two Grosse Pointe Park families: Richard and Jane Manoogian, and Paul and Carol Schapp. The chamber also assisted financially with the project, and local restaurants such as Red Crown in Grosse Pointe Park have stepped up, too.

The project's quick acceptance has organizers thinking big. The first initiative was the installation of a GPS system in the trolley. A visit to www.gptrolley.com shows the location and the direction of the trolley, helping patrons know when to start their stroll to the trolley stop.

App is coming

Starting this weekend, a smartphone app will provide exact trolley tracking and provide an estimated time of arrival. Soon, the service will designate specific stops along Kercheval to reduce travel time along the route, thereby preventing long waits for patron pickup.

Although the initial plan was to fund the project through the end of December — partly because the front end of the trolley might be unable to handle another snowy Michigan winter — things have changed. By working with businesses, patrons and sponsors, there are hopes of a year-round service.

"The K-Line anticipates expanding service to facilitate restaurant special events, which we hope will become standard," Krajniak said. "Also, we'd love to expand service to adjoining streets to promote new weeknight restaurant events such as Oyster Night, Taco Night or Sushi Night, for example."

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

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