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Parking meters come to downtown Sarasota

Anecdotal arguments that paid parking will scare away patrons and shutter Sarasota's small businesses have for years kept meters off downtown curbs.
bilde.jpgBut today, Sarasota will begin installing high tech parking meters to charge for about 460 spots in the downtown core. By mid-May, most will charge $1 per hour Monday through Saturday, payable by cash and credit card.

Those who do not pay will be slapped with a $25 fine, which parking enforcement, armed with new technology, promises to rigorously collect.

For those willing to stretch their legs, there will remain cheaper long-term parking in several downtown lots and more than 650 free spaces blocks from Main Street.

The installment marks an end to a parking fight merchants waged two years ago against city officials, who say that charging for parking will clear up the downtown bottleneck and keep commerce flowing.

Still, downtown leaders have their fingers crossed as Sarasota seeks the paid parking sweet spot: A revolving door of money spenders and a couple vacant spots on every block.

It is economics 101. Keep the supply of spots near demand, determine what people are willing to pay and let the market keep the parking, and spending, moving.

If the equation is not right, city officials say they will adjust by 50 cents up or down next year.

While some downtown leaders are fearful that parking fees could strangle Sarasota's fragile economy, the research suggests Sarasota will be just fine.

Chris Gallagher, a board member of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, points to data from across the country when he says Sarasota is not at risk of becoming a "ghost town."

Over the last two years, the local architect has volunteered his time to research parking schemes elsewhere, and it did not take long for him to become the go-to for both ambitious city officials and angered business owners.

Fear of change, he said, has muddied the three-year-long debate about paid parking in Sarasota.

"It's like asking, well, do you want to pay taxes?" he said. "The answer is always no."

The trick, he says, is to ask a better question.

"Would you rather pull right up to the shop you're going to or ride around the block several times?"

That approach was key as Gallagher immersed himself into sparring matches, which are common in places looking at installing meters.

"Every single one of them has these debates, and they all say, 'Oh my god it's going to kill us,'" Gallagher said.

Finally last week, with Gallagher at the table, leaders of all three major downtown business groups voiced their support for paid parking before the City Commission a feat that two years ago seemed impossible.

But those groups also issued caveats that the city be willing to change prices with the ebb and flow of commerce and that they help ease the pain on downtown visitors.

Change is coming

In Sarasota, the cost of parking enforcement exceeds $500,000 a year, a deepening hole that would continue to cost taxpayers money if a new revenue source is not tapped.

With human workers patrolling downtown and chalking vehicles violating the 2-hour time limit, the old way is cumbersome, says Sarasota Police Department Capt. Jeffrey Karr, who manages parking enforcement.

New technology will help SPD amp up its offensive against ticket scofflaws, many of them tourists who have amassed more than $450,000 in unpaid tickets the last five years.

Karr said most of that figure is "uncollectible," but future offenders will have a harder time getting away without paying because those who fail to feed the meter will be ticketed and the information instantly wired up to state offices

Those with three tickets will be flagged by the state system.

SPD can then boot their cars within minutes, and drivers will be unable to renew their licenses or register their vehicles until the tickets are paid.

With less time spent monitoring time limits, parking enforcers can focus on looking for scofflaws with the help of a license plate recognition patrol car, which also scans plates to identify stolen cars and expired tags.

"This is a no-brainer," Karr said, adding that parking officers will focus their efforts in metered areas. "You can probably triple your enforcement."

The new program will forgo time limits where new meters come in a change Gallagher proposed allowing drivers to purchase as much time as needed.

Hourly costs will naturally deter restaurant and shop employees who fill street-side spots, officials hope, drawing them to the city's two parking garages, which will offer a $40-a-month permit for downtown employees.

"An employee is not going to feed the meter for five hours," said City Manager Bob Bartolotta. "That made sense to us. Let the economic market rule it."

The new Palm Avenue mixed use garage will also offer 164 free spaces until October.

Bartolotta said the city decided to charge $1 per hour for parking as a starting point to determine whether they should charge more or less to attain a 15 percent on-street vacancy.

"That's on the low side nationwide," he said. "It's a beginning point."

Under the new parking program, revenues from parking enforcement will go into a parking trust fund, which will pay for sidewalk beautification and maintenance.

Skeptical support

Eileen Hampshire, chairwoman of the Downtown Sarasota Alliance, thinks most merchants are warming to the idea of meters downtown.

"I think we're just going to forge ahead and hope we are right," said Hampshire, who also owns the Palm Avenue shop Art to Walk On.

As for any business complaining that parking meters will be their undoing, she says, "Get over it. Suck it up. How babyish can you be?"

Eager to ride a new wave of support for the meters, Sarasota will also give the DSA $15,000 to launch a marketing campaign to familiarize drivers.

That effort will include organizing volunteer ambassadors, who wearing bright shirts will distribute city maps highlighting the free parking zones just blocks away from Main Street, and direct people to 46 multi-space kiosks.

But Paul Thorpe, chairman of the holiday parade board, is skeptical. His group brings tens of thousands of people downtown each December who "all seem to find parking."

"I conceded to the fact that we are going to get parking meters," said Thorpe, who is also a member of the DSA.

Thorpe said a last-minute change to expand enforcement to Saturday and until 8 p.m. only reinforced concerns that restaurant workers or the Saturday morning Farmer's Market downtown, for instance could be adversely affected.

"I feel like that was a triple penalty."
city of Sarasota
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