New garage is meeting officials' expectations

Three-level deck made about $50,000 in 1st year

Westminster

September 09, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

One year after it opened, the $2.85 million, three-level parking garage in Westminster has met the expectations of city officials who think the garage and another facility across town ensure a bright future for downtown business development.

The Longwell garage, with about 300 spaces, made more than $50,000 in its first year, mostly from monthly permits, officials said. Before it opened, critics doubted that the garage would ever be that full. Some store owners see safety issues in using the garage at night and say the timing was not right to build such a big structure in the downtown area.

The garages were built with the expectation that the combined 500 spaces would make downtown Westminster more attractive to businesses and would enable the city to develop surplus lots for business and retail. The addition of the garages brings the city's downtown public parking spaces to more than 2,300.

"Frankly, it is meeting our expectations in a number of ways. The most obvious is that there are now parking spaces available on Main Street, the metered parking in the central business district and surface lots," said city Councilman Thomas K. Ferguson, a retired BB&T vice president and chairman of the council's finance and parking committees.

After a protracted construction marred by record snowfall, rain and a collapse that injured three workers in the spring of last year, Westminster's Longwell deck opened Sept. 2 of last year. Shortly after, another garage opened at the Westminster Square building on Liberty Street.

An increase in parking-meter fees accompanied the facilities, which city officials hoped would dissuade long-term parkers from taking metered spots closer to shops and encourage them to buy parking permits.

It was a decision that rankled local merchants, who complained that existing lots were more than adequate and that the increased meter fees would drive away customers.

City finance director Joseph D. Urban said that together the garages have brought in $52,000, although Longwell accounted for an estimated 97 percent of that revenue. Monthly permits dominate the revenue stream, with $40,000, while daily visitors paid $12,000 to park in the decks.

Thursdays are the busiest days at Longwell, with an average of 217 daily parkers. Mondays are the slowest days.

June was Longwell's busiest month, while business dropped off in July and last month. For those two months, the garage averaged 210 to 215 parkers a day.

"When there's more development and business activity going on downtown, that's really going to help the use of garages," Urban said. "We need to focus on additional development."

The 315-space Longwell garage and the continuing renovation of the Locust Lane pedestrian mall adjacent to it cost $2.85 million, most of it paid by a state bond.

"Overall, I'd give it a thumbs-up," Ferguson said. As more people use the garages, the city will have to dip less and less into its general fund to pay off the bond, he said.

BB&T donated $2 million for the construction of the Westminster Square garage. The bank also gave the city the land on which the garage, and a four-story office and residential building was built.

The city also passed ordinances last year that approved higher parking fees -- raised to 50 cents an hour from 25 cents -- and enabled the city to switch to computerized meters. The increased rates brought in $137,000, Urban said.

"This was not intended to be a gotcha kind of thing," Ferguson said. "People are finally catching on to the concept: If you're going to park and you're not sure how long you're going to be, park in the garage so you won't have to run around feeding a meter."

Permit parkers at central downtown lots and garages pay $30 a month, an increase of $10 from previous rates. Outlying lots are cheaper.

Urban said the 100 monthly garage permits at Longwell and the five at Westminster Square bring in $2,500 a month on average. Daily visitors pull in $1,000 a month.

"The majority of people buying monthly permits are absolutely the people who are working in downtown Westminster," Urban said. "Once people have moved into the garage, they haven't moved out." Discounts have helped, Urban said.

"It's taken the merchants and vendors off the street, off the lot and into the garage," said Jo Brown, owner of the 2-year-old Mail Depot on Main Street and a monthly permit parker in the Longwell garage.

"There was no parking ever in front of the shop and in the back. We just could never park; it was always full," she said. "It's really freed up the lot. The garage is a good thing. I'm glad it's there."

She finds it encouraging that the garage is free for events. It is also free after 5 p.m. weekdays and throughout the weekend.

"It's wonderful for me because I'm handicapped," Brown said. "Now I don't have to dig my car out. I don't have to worry about ice on my windshield. That is a nice, secure place to be. It's well-lit, well-maintained and easily accessed."

A nearby merchant disagrees.

"None of our customers use it," said Venus Ries, owner of Venus & Co. Salon & Spa, in the Winchester Exchange building adjacent to a metered parking lot and the garage.

"No one wants to go in there at night," Ries said. "We didn't need it. They should have put the money toward cleaning up the city and making it safe for people to walk around at night."

Security cameras record activity at the two garages, Urban said, so that the only two instances of damage at either site were dealt with swiftly. The perpetrators were caught on camera and later by police.

On average, visitors stay in the garage an hour, Urban said.

"I wish they were staying all day long," he said.

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