Dozens of Business Owners Sign Petition Opposing Parking Rate Increases

robinIn an inspiring show of solidarity, dozens of downtown business owners have signed a petition opposing the city’s proposed parking rate increases! You can see that petition here in the agenda packet for tonight’s city council meeting. Please support these fine businesses and thank them for standing up for their customers and against the proposed increased rates and fines for parking!

Here’s a story from the Keene Sentinel’s Kyle Jarvis, highlighting the opinions of some of the signers:

Some downtown merchants have brought their disapproval of proposed Keene parking rate hikes to City Hall.

Merchants have started at least two petitions, and many said in recent interviews they believe raising the rates is the wrong move.

Last month, city staff proposed major changes to the city’s parking meter rates for both on- and off-street parking spaces, as well as lengthening the time meters are in effect and increasing the penalties for tickets. They told the Keene City Council the changes might be necessary to prevent the city’s parking fund from running dry in a few years, and to move forward with much-needed maintenance on the city’s existing parking structures.

Reserves in the fund — about $700,000 — would be gone by 2017 if no action is taken. The rates were last raised in 2002.

“I think what it will do is discourage people from coming downtown,” said Tracy E. Keating, owner of Life is Sweet in Central Square and co-chairwoman of the Keene Downtown Group. “People have already, at the current prices, complained what a pain it is to find a spot.”

John M. Croteau, owner of Syd’s Carpet and Snooze Room on St. James Street, started a petition that opposes any fee increase.

“I’ve been at Syd’s now for 47 years, and I’ve noticed one of the drawbacks to shopping downtown is the parking meters,” he said. “To increase the parking prices, it hasn’t any merit as far as I’m concerned.”

Croteau said his customers will often come back into the store after finding a parking ticket, “as if it’s my fault, and they’re mad.”

“If they bought something, we’ll pay (the ticket) for them,” he said. “That happens at least a couple of times a week.”

Gary P. Lamoureux, the city’s parking project manager, was quick to point out that the changes suggested are only that — suggestions.

“What we were asked to do was look at expense and revenues, the status of the parking fund, and things we think may need to happen to make that fund come to where it needs to be,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “We asked (the council) to accept that as informational, and find out what their thought processes were, and allow us to draft an ordinance to have something to look at and adjust.”

In other words, the proposed increase is just one of several possibilities to deal with the problem of the diminishing parking fund, he said.

“We’re not attached to anything, as far as the rates,” he said. “It’s just what it would look like if we did those things.”

In short-term, on-street spaces, staff suggested reducing the value of a quarter from 30 minutes to 20 minutes. In long-term lots, they recommended decreasing the value of a quarter from 75 minutes to 30 minutes. They also proposed a 25-cent minimum for all spaces.

Reserved parking costs $115 for uncovered spaces and $140 for covered spaces. Those rates could increase to $130 and $155, respectively.

Under the proposal, fines for expired meters would also increase. Instead of an initial $5 ticket that rises to $15 if unpaid within 14 days, an initial ticket would be written for $10, which would increase to $35 if unpaid within 28 days.

The hours that meters are in effect would also change, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., to be more consistent with the hours of operation for many downtown businesses, staff members said.

The council voted last month to allow staff to craft an ordinance with the proposed increases, at which point members of the public will have an opportunity to weigh in. The draft is expected later this month.

Still, the notion of a drastic meter rate increase has many downtown merchants up in arms.

Croteau’s petition already has 20-plus signatures, including owners representing Miller Brothers-Newton, Downtown Fitness For Women and Beeze Tees Screenprinting.

A second petition has already been submitted to City Hall, and is signed by several downtown businesspeople, including representatives from Anthony Toepher Jewelers, Miranda’s On Main, Your Kitchen Store, Urban Exchange, Moda, Life Is Sweet, The Apothecary, Timoleon’s Restaurant, Synergy, Yolo Frozen Yogurt, Lindy’s Diner, Edible Arrangements, Athens Pizza, Good Fortune, Phat Stuff, Local Burger, Keene Fresh Salad Co., Corner News and several others.

Roberta Mastrogiavanni, who owns and operates The Corner News on Main Street, says it’s not so much the on-street parking rate increase that she’s concerned about.

“I don’t have a problem with that, we need the turnover on Main Street,” she said. “But, when they go and threaten to move fines from $5 to $10, and change the time from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., that’s a factor.

“I think there should be more discussion, and that we just really feel it’s going to hurt business down here,” she added. “I don’t think there’s one person I’ve talked to down here that’s agreeable to it.”

While Keating acknowledges that non-metered parking would probably be a detriment to business owners due to decreased turnover in parking spaces, she said she doesn’t believe raising the rates is the solution.

Said Mastrogiavanni: “The economy’s not great, and traffic on Main Street could be a lot better for everybody,” she said. “We just need more time to figure it out.”

Some merchants said they’re most concerned about the financial effects the increases could have on their employees.

“All of my employees have expressed concern about an additional $10 a week or something,” said Dean J. Eaton, owner of Your Kitchen Store on Main Street. “I think that that issue is biggest with employees who park in long-term lots. If they’re working for minimum wage or slightly above, that’s a chunk of change.”

David A. Sutherland, who along with his wife owns and operates the Ingenuity Country Store in Central Square, agreed.

“For those who park in lots, those are a good deal, especially now if you’re an employee, because you can get an hour and 15 minutes, and that’s affordable for people who aren’t making a whole lot of money to begin with,” he said. “An employer can’t have employees running out to plug a meter all the time.

“I understand the city needs to make up a shortfall, but they need to make parking downtown more consumer-friendly, and this is not a consumer-friendly move, in my opinion.”

Part of the debate seems to be a difference of opinion about whether there’s enough parking available downtown.

In 2010, a firm hired by the city concluded that parking was adequate in Keene, but with a caveat, Lamoureux said.

“They did qualify that, that if there was further development in the downtown, it could affect their decision that it’s adequate,” he said.

The city has seen such development downtown since that report, with the addition of a new central fire station on Vernon Street, a new court complex on Winter Street, and the Monadnock Food Co-op on the former railroad land. Some of the development has taken away existing parking spaces.

At the time of that report, Gilbo Avenue was suggested as the best location for a new parking garage, he said.

“I think downtown businesses and city staff, and even the council are on board with the fact that we know we’ve got to continue to look at parking,” he said. “We believe that Gilbo Avenue would be the place to put a larger structure.”

That’s likely music to many merchants’ ears, who have been clamoring for a new parking garage for years, including Lindy Chakalos, who owns Timoleon’s Restaurant on Main Street.

“There isn’t enough parking, that’s the issue,” he said this week. “They should address that. Build a garage over here. They talked about that 20 years ago, but it never materialized.”

Chakalos said the lack of parking has hurt his business.

“Customers say they drive around and drive around, and they can’t find a parking space,” he said. “After a while, they don’t care because there’s so many restaurants (to choose from).”

Eaton agreed about the need for a garage.

“I’ve been wanting a parking garage for 20 years at least,” he said. “I was on the council back in the ’80s and they were talking about it, today they’re talking about it, but they should stop talking about it and just do it.”

Lamoureux said he and other city staff plan to hold a session soon to put all the options for added parking on the table — including a parking garage proposed for Cypress Street by Monadnock Economic Development Corp., and a parking lot on the former YMCA property proposed by property owner Christopher Tasoulas — and figure out the best way to move forward.

“We’re going to put them in front of (the council’s) finance, organization and personnel committee to see what (those projects) would do for the city,” he said. “Basically, we’re looking at these projects, putting them all into the mix so we can get some direction on what the city can do.”

That presentation might not happen before June, when the Monadnock Economic Development Corp. is expected to pitch its plan for a parking garage to the council, Lamoureux said.

In the meantime, the draft ordinance for the proposed increases in meter rates and hours of operation will go before the council’s finance committee on April 24.

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