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Paid parking downtown continues to rankle some merchants

The Hendersonville City Council may have devoted more time to downtown parking in recent years than any issue that didn’t involve zoning, and there’s no evidence that will change anytime soon.

Six months into the renewed era of paid parking downtown, the council is still dealing with the consequences — some predictable, some unexpected. Last Thursday night, council moved quickly to regulate private parking lots and outlaw “predatory towing.”

There’s plenty of grumbling among downtown shopkeepers, restaurateurs, hair salons and other service providers that paid parking has transformed the culture from relaxed browsing to uptight shopping — causing customers to cut short their visits.

During a meeting on June 13, the Downtown Advisory Committee heard from 17 owners of shops, services or restaurants, nearly all of whom described problems they had encountered with paid parking. Among the comments:

  • Daryl Waldrop, who owns Pisgah Forest Gem Mine and three other downtown shops, told the board that his sales were down 5.5 percent and total transactions down 11 percent, according to minutes of the meeting. He had observed families rushing to return to their cars instead of lingering to shop and had seen “dads hurrying the family” to leave before the meter expired. The gem mine hadn’t hosted a birthday party since the city imposed parking on March 1, Daryl’s wife, Lisa, added.
  • Traci English, of High Country Furniture, was among the many shopkeepers who cited confusion as a bigger aggravation than cost. Most visitors don’t understand that even if they plan to use the 30 minutes of free parking, they must check in at a kiosk or on the ParkMobile app.
  • Tempo Music owners Lily and Michael Hall said the parking meters had hurt their shop’s revenue — and pointed out that the city eliminated parking meters in the first place to make downtown competitive with shopping malls. The Halls recommended halving the rate, to $1/hour, and ending enforcement at 5 p.m.

‘They’re not contacting us to thank us’

City Council members said in interviews last week that they’re aware of the complaints and expect to look into options for changes — maybe even some big ones — but not until downtown has logged a year’s worth of experience.

“I think there’re definitely people who don't have a problem with it and are OK with the fact that when you come downtown, you can find places to park,” Jerry Smith said. “But most people that contact us about this issue are not contacting us to say thank you. They're upset.”

“It’s a mixed bag,” Jennifer Hensley said. “I have businesses and restaurants telling me they’re busier than they’ve ever been and I have businesses telling me they’re not busy. My business is down this year. I have friends who run large companies telling me their business is down. It seems like everybody is slow and I think the economy is affecting a lot of businesses in general.”

If they’re having to weather grumbling during the first year of the paid parking rollout, council members can take comfort in knowing that the core goal — raising enough money to serve the parking deck debt — is being met. Predictions that local people and tourists would abandon downtown for shopping malls and restaurants with parking lots have not come to pass.

“Quite honestly, it's amazing how close revenue is to exactly what was predicted and what will be needed to pay off the parking deck,” Smith said.

In defending their decision to return to parking meters after decades of free parking downtown, council members repeated several oft-stated factors: Downtown merchants, shoppers and residents had been asking for years for a parking deck; the city’s Downtown Advisory Committee recommended both a parking deck and a return to paid parking; the council settled on paid parking as a fairer way to finance the parking deck than raising property taxes; it would be unwise to make wholesale changes or retreat from that strategy with less than a full year of data to go on.

“Unfortunately, we have to pay for the parking services we provide, which is why I continue to advocate for the quarter-cent sales tax,” Hensley said. (The Legislature, which would have to authorize a city referendum, has shown no interest.) “Charging people that are using the service makes more sense than charging the taxpayer.”


‘I know it’s a big change’

Lyndsey Simpson, the mayor pro tem, cited several positive attributes to the new system.

“I think parking is going really well, to be totally honest with you,” she said. “Every time I'm downtown, the spaces are full. The parking garage was really full over Apple Festival and a lot of folks that I've talked to like the fact that they can pop in and out of someplace really fast and be able to park right in front of it. So if you are going to McFarland’s and you want to get a dozen donuts, you can check in for the 30 minutes, pop in and pop out and park right in front of it, as opposed to previously, when you would drive around the block for a few minutes and you may just give up and go home.”

Simpson also pointed out that in the bigger picture, it’s the city, not landowners or merchants, that is responsible for providing parking.

“I know it's a big change for people and we understand that,” she said. “But we had to do something to help with this resource. The city of Hendersonville was the only entity that was supporting the resource of parking. No one else was providing money for that infrastructure or the upkeep or the personnel that was needed to do that upkeep.

“And so in order to be able to accomplish all of the other things that the city of Hendersonville wanted to do — raise pay, a great (new) fire station, update the putt-putt, work on our parks, all of these other services that we provide — we needed to find another way to supplement that cost. So the best way to do that was through the paid parking, because now everyone who's utilizing that resource is buying into it, whereas before it was only the city residents.”

Like other council members, Simpson urged people to be patient and tried to assure disgruntled parkers and shopkeepers that the council will review the situation thoroughly next spring.

“It has to go at least a year through a whole cycle of all the seasons for us to really be able to see what the impact is,” she said. “And I do think that some of the long-term suggestions are going to be implemented. I don't perceive parking going away. What I would like to see is maybe some other parking pass options. I'd like to see more employee parking because the Dogwood lot filled up so fast. And we really need something on the other side of Main Street for all the folks that work out there so they're not having to walk six blocks.”