Discount on parking sought by merchants

Westminster officials, firm owners discuss ways to offset higher meter rate

April 08, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Complaining that a proposed increase in parking fees could drive potential customers away, about 10 Westminster merchants asked city lawmakers yesterday to provide discounts for parking.

"What if we had a permit sharing program?" asked Lori Graham, who owns Dutterer's Florist on Pennsylvania Avenue, at a meeting with city officials. It would free meters, she said, and employers would have to pay for one card for two part-timers.

She also suggested a one-day permit for downtown visitors.

Another idea the city suggested to merchants is buying prepaid tickets in bulk and passing the savings on to customers.

The purpose of the discussion is to get merchant feedback to help ensure a smooth transition to digital meters and an electronic garage system this summer.

At the most recent council meeting, ordinances were passed that approved higher parking fees -- 50 cents an hour from 25 cents -- and enabled the city to switch to new computerized meters that will accept prepaid and debit cards as well as coins.

The moves angered some storeowners, who told council members at that meeting that the city is going to drive away customers by raising parking fees.

"I'm losing customers galore right now," said Venus Ries, who owns Venus & Co. Salon and Spa. "I don't have a customer who's willing to pay 50 cents an hour when they're in here for three or four hours."

When some suggested reimbursing customers for parking fees, Ries objected.

"If I had to reimburse 50 customers $1.50 each, the cost comes back to me," she said. "It would mean raising my prices and then I would be out of business."

For months, finding a parking space in lots behind Main Street storefronts has been challenging, as a new three-level 300-space parking garage under construction reduces available metered and permit parking.

Merchants said that customers continually complain about the difficulties of finding a space and that more obstacles -- such as a higher charge for parking -- will discourage business.

Although some acknowledged that the space limitation will ease once the garage is finished, they said that raising the price of parking will have a more significant, and lasting, effect.

"I don't think Carroll County is ready for that," said Robin Pool, owner of Country View Tuxedo, which faces the Sherwood parking lot. "I grew up in Carroll County and I get phone calls asking what's my bottom line. I think Carroll is still that way -- very money-conscious."

Business owners at the forum were encouraged to devise ways to make the increase work for them.

"We're looking for a well-thought-out suggestion that makes some sense and looks like it could be implemented," said Tom Ferguson, a city councilman on the panel's parking committee.

He told merchants the decision to increase parking fees would not be changed, saying that if the city is to maintain its parking decks and lots, it needs to charge more.

"This forum isn't for people who think the only solution is to keep it the same or free," said Ferguson, who encouraged merchants to buy meter swipe cards in bulk.

He said one of the main goals of the parking committee was to change the behavior of long-term parkers who are gobbling up metered spaces.

Permit parkers at central downtown lots will pay $30 a month when the new parking equipment arrives in late summer, instead of $20 for premium spaces, and lower rates would be charged for outlying lots.

Ferguson agreed with other city officials who say that the cost of feeding meters now is about equal to parking permits. That, he said, needs to change.

"If it gets prohibitively expensive, you will look someplace else for cheaper parking," he said.

The city thinks the increase is a small price to pay for ensuring Westminster's future growth.

"We can't help businesses make a profit," said Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works. "But we can make sure people can get downtown feel safe and have a place to park."

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