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City eyes tweaks in response to gripes over downtown meters

The city of Hendersonville and its elected leaders are eyeing a range of tweaks in response to the first three months of paid parking downtown, a change that has largely met revenue projections while also generating complaints about the cost, age-unfriendliness of the kiosks and parking app and making downtown a less "leisurely” experience.

Last month Assistant City Manager Brian Pahle presented a lengthy report to the City Council on the first three months of the parking meters, what shopkeepers, restaurateurs and other business owners are saying and what the city could do to improve the parking system.
Besides raising enough money to cover the debt service for the city’s new parking deck, one aim of the downtown metering was to move employees off Main Street. “We also wanted to create an easy-to-use system with different options for payment from cash to card to phone to permit,” Pahle said. “We wanted to create more permit activity and we wanted to maintain an active business district.
“Of those, I think three, we’ve done really well out of the gate,” he said. “We’re really working through the technical bugs in the use of the system. I guess the jury’s out on maintaining an active business district. There are varying opinions across town of what that means.”
Generating an average of $66,473 a month in March, April and May, the downtown meters, parking deck and parking permits for surface lots off Main Street have performed close to what the city and its consultant projected.
“We’re right on pace to make the revenue model currently,” Pahle said. (In month-by-month projections, June and July are tied for second, at $72,028; October is the highest, at $91,324.)
The parking deck brought in revenue during Garden Jubilee, when Main Street was blocked off and meters weren’t used. The city is projecting a similar surge in parking deck use during the four-day N.C. Apple Festival as well.

‘We’re hearing business is hurting’

Last month, with the three months of experience behind them, city staffers and the Downtown Advisory Council reviewed the numbers, aired problems and volleyed solutions. Around 25 business owners showed up for the advisory council’s public input meeting on June 13 “to let it all out there” and two weeks later the council debated and voted on fixes.
“We’re hearing business is hurting,” Pahle said. “We’re also hearing at the same time some people are attributing (a downturn) to other economic factors related to interest rates and the national economy and that other community businesses might be down outside of Hendersonville that aren’t a parking meter type area.”
A widely shared view was that it’s confusing to offer the first hour free in the parking deck and first half-hour free on Main Street and the avenues. A Chamber of Commerce committee recommended eliminating the free parking increments entirely and using the money that generates to invest in other improvements. But Pahle said services like real estate and insurance offices and restaurants’ takeout business are benefiting from the free time.
“Now they’re able to come in under 30 minutes and get out and sign some paperwork for real estate or something like that,” he said.

Make meters ‘age friendly’

Using the electronic payment screens or the Parkmobile app has been frustrating for some patrons.
“We’ve heard we need to make payment easier,” Pahle said. “Ideas have been floated from volunteer ambassadors to some store owners adopting an ‘adopt a kiosk’ mindset, where they go out and help people with kiosks that are out in front of their store. We’ve heard it’s hurting the first seating (at restaurants). We’ve also heard other dinner numbers are up so it’s kind of a mixed bag there. We’ve heard it needs to be a more age-friendly system. We’ve heard some businesses will go under.”
Potential tweaks include:
• Making handicapped spaces free. The idea didn’t have wide support from the Downtown Advisory Committee because a free space is more likely to be taken by a vehicle that stays for eight hours.
• Reducing the time increments parkers can buy from an hour to 30 or 15 minutes. The DAC and council members supported the change.
• Lower the cost of a parking ticket from $50 to $25. The DAC supported it but at least one council member did not. “I don’t know if I agree with lowering the citation rates because we had such a huge issue with people abusing that system before and I don’t understand making it easier or cheaper for people to not follow the rules,” Mayor pro tem Lyndsey Simpson said.
• Modify enforcement hours, from 7 to 6 p.m. “or 5, we’ve even heard,” Pahle said. “Again, these come with financial risks” of dramatically reducing parking revenue.
• Offering a lower rate on the avenues than on Main Street. “I think that creates additional confusion from the user perspective because they’re all the same zone right now,” Pahle said.
• Allowing parking permits to cover more than one vehicle, so that a shop with three employees working three different days, for instance, could add all three tag numbers to the store’s permit.
• Launch an aggressive marketing campaign. The goal, Pahle said, would be to “help people understand where free parking is and how comparable it is to just going into Target or a super center and realizing it’s the same distance to walk if you’re just one block off Main Street.” The campaign would also provide clearer guidance on how to pay and would promote monthly parking permits.
The council may take up some short-term solutions as early as next month. Taking up potential long-term solutions, including modifying enforcement hours, lowering the parking rate and instituting south-end permits, is probably at least a year off.