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Meter hike an awful idea

April 10, 2003

After allowing street construction to batter downtown retailers last year, the Hagerstown City Council is preparing another assault on those merchants still hanging on. Given the council's inability to spark a retail renaissance so far, it should listen to merchants now and forego a parking meter increase.

The increase is being proposed because the council is facing a large budget deficit. To close it, the council is eyeing increases in monthly parking rates for the North Potomac Street deck and boosting on-street meter rates from 25 to 50 cents an hour. And fines for an expired meter would go from $7 to $10.

If revenues from all those sources meet projections, the city would raise $300,000, cash that would otherwise have to come from the city's general fund.

Raising meter rates is a terrible idea, for one big reason. Parking is an amenity, like street lighting, that people have come to expect for free. After all, there's no hourly charge for it at the area's many strip centers and malls.

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What shoppers at those places don't know is that the cost of maintaining those lots has been worked into each store's lease, along with promotions and other niceties.

Could downtown merchants form such an association? It's been tried, in the form of the Downtown Assessment District, but there was so much whining about its small cost that merchants themselves disbanded it in 1999, right before the Centre at Hagerstown opened.

Past city administrations have assisted in the developments on the city's fringe, sometimes with substantial tax breaks, kidding themselves and citizens that those would have no effect on downtown.

They were wrong. Now a new council has a chance to help the merchants, not with big tax breaks, but by subsidizing reasonably priced parking until shopping downtown becomes a habit again. Put the meter-hike proposal in the round file, where it belongs.

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