Receipts indicate parking plan for Ellicott City is working But benefits to merchants still haven't arrived

March 21, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Ellicott City's new parking plan appears to be working -- judging from its first eight months of receipts -- but merchants will have to wait before they can reap the economic benefits they were promised.

The controversial plan, which began in July, includes meters in some public lots, tough enforcement in tow-away zones and a private firm to ticket motorists in the historic commercial district, which has long been troubled by parking problems.

Many merchants opposed the plan, fearing that the ticketing of errant parkers would scare off customers. But others became supporters once the county promised that funds from parking fines and meters most likely would be used to build a parking garage.

For now, however, the funds are funneled to Howard County's general fund and are used to pay the plan's bills, including the $83,000 contract for the Virginia-based J. L. Associates private enforcement firm and the $38,000 cost of purchasing and installing about 90 parking meters.

From the beginning of July through February, the parking firm has issued 5,550 tickets -- about 23 tickets a day -- worth about $85,514, said the county's Bureau of Revenue. About 80 percent of the fines, or $68,411, have been collected, said Terry Breeden, administrative assistant in the revenue bureau.

Fines from $14 to $100 Fines range from $14 to $100 for such offenses as parking longer than the one- or two-hour time limits along Main Street or parking in a loading zone.

Revenue figures from the meters aren't available, but Breeden said the meters -- which take in 25 cents and 50 cents an hour for parking -- yield only a small amount of money.

Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the county's Planning and Zoning Department, said that, next fall at the earliest, she will request that County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the County Council create a separate fund for the historic district's parking revenues.

Once that fund is created, the surplus will be reinvested into the town, McLaughlin said.

"If the money stays here in historic Ellicott City, that's great. If it goes elsewhere, then that's not right. Turn the money over to the merchants," said Steve McDermott, part owner of Southwest Connection, a Native American jewelry and pottery boutique on Main Street.

Said Frank DiPietro, owner of Mumbles and Squeaks, a toy store on Main Street: "I hate to see people getting tickets -- I've gotten three myself. But it shows that this plan can generate revenue."

Dozens of businesses

The district -- with its dozens of restaurants, antiques shops, gift boutiques and other stores -- has 1,050 parking spaces, 180 on Main Street and 870 in seven public lots.

One indication of the area's traffic: At least 12,000 people visited the county's visitor center off Main Street in the eight months the parking plan has been in effect, said Karen Justice, executive director of the county's Tourism Council.

Devised over a two-year period, the plan's intent, officials say, is to break the gridlock and give tourists a fair shot at convenient spaces often taken by merchants and their employees.

Generally, merchants said, the plan appears to be working, but it has some quirks that are bothersome and need adjusting, they said.

"The plan has certainly turned traffic over on Main Street, but it's not too user-friendly," McDermott said. "The time limits might be a little too stringent, and we could probably do without meters in some of the parking lots."

Survey sent to merchants

A survey was sent to merchants two weeks ago to get their thoughts on the plan, but the results haven't been tabulated, said McLaughlin.

"We need to digest the responses and see what kind of fine-tuning can be done," she said.

There are some left-over issues, such as whether time-limits for most of Main Street will remain at one hour or be increased to two hours. Restaurant owners are mostly against the one-hour parking period, saying it rushes customers out of their establishments.

While many merchants now support the plan, there are some who still refuse to endorse it.

"Business is off, and I'm blaming it on the parking," said George "Buzz" Suter, owner of Judge's Bench restaurant on Main Street.

But some visitors appear sold on the plan.

Said Eileen Strange of Reisterstown on a recent visit to the historic shopping district: "I no longer feel I have to be the first person in Ellicott City in order to get a parking space."

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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