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Some complain parking fee hikes bad for business

April 03, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Some merchants in downtown Hagerstown said Wednesday that if parking meter rates are doubled, as proposed, the increase may drive away customers.

Some downtown businesses reported a drop in sales during parts of 2002 as the result of state Streetscape work. While that work was going on, some traffic lanes were temporarily closed and parking on West Washington and West Franklin streets was reduced.

A parking meter increase will not help businesses' efforts to get customers shopping downtown again, said James Neikirk, president of Neikirk's of Hagerstown at 66 W. Franklin St.

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"Retail downtown is leaving right and left and one of the reasons is parking," he said.

The fiscal year 2004 city budget proposed by City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman calls for increasing the parking meter rates from 25 cents to 50 cents per hour and raising parking fines for expired meters from $7 to $10.

The proposed budget also calls for increasing the permit fees for the parking deck and parking lots from $40 to $45.

It is estimated the increases will raise about $300,000. They are being proposed to help pay for parking expenses that otherwise would have to be subsidized by the general fund, Finance Director Al Martin said.

If the city does not raise the rates, it will need to find some other way to pay those expenses, he said.

An increase of a quarter may seem like a "trivial thing," said Cheryl Kenney, owner of Roccoco, at 20 W. Washington St., but to customers already unsure about whether they want to go downtown, the increase could be the deciding factor.

"It is going to just discourage people from coming downtown," Rachel O'Connor, owner of Carol & Company at 25 W. Washington St., said. She said the most common complaints she hears from customers are about parking.

The city should be encouraging business growth not hurting businesses, O'Connor said.

Councilman Carol N. Moller, former owner of Carol & Company, said customers will patronize downtown businesses - even with a parking meter increase - if the businesses are selling something they want.

"If you are a good business I think they are going to come," she said.

The city has done studies that show the downtown has adequate parking, including the parking deck and public parking lot on Potomac Street near City Hall. But that parking may not be exactly where the customer wants it, City Economic Development Director Deborah Everhart said.

She said she knew of no businesses that have left downtown Hagerstown because of parking problems.

Neikirk said customers sometimes get upset if they can't park in front of his store. When they point out that parking at malls is free, he reminds them that at a mall, they have to park even farther from the stores.

At Tuesday's meeting, Everhart told the City Council that some members of a downtown merchants group have expressed concern about the impact parking rate changes would have on their businesses.

Everhart and Martin met about the issue Wednesday and made plans for Everhart to meet with representatives of some downtown businesses to see if they can come up with other options for funding parking-related expenses.

Other possibilities include a general tax increase for all taxpayers or a special assessment for downtown merchants whose customers use metered parking, Martin said.

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