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Parking solutions include signage, smart meters, employee spaces

A shopper waits for a parking space on Main Street. A shopper waits for a parking space on Main Street.

Wayfinding. Log it in. It's the newest buzzword to solve downtown parking problems.

Downtown parking as an issue is not new but growing crowds on Main Street have pushed the issue to the top of the agenda.
Stung by the criticism that they're doing too little, city officials said they've been working on parking plans for several months, and plan to bring recommendations for solutions to the City Council.
"We haven't been sitting on our hands with it," said City Manager John Connet. A team that includes Main Street coordinator Lew Holloway, planning director Sue Anderson, public works director Tom Wooten and parking enforcement officer Anita Lockhart has been brainstorming ideas.
"We're going to meet monthly and talk about how we can look at the parking issue downtown holistically," Connet said. "What's the expectation for the city, what are we currently doing and how can we do it better?"
A plan to meet and talk is exactly what City Hall critic and shop owner Eva Ritchey doesn't want to hear. She organized a group of merchants pushing for a parking solution.
"I said at the beginning that we are going to go through channels but we are not going to be satisfied with for it to be a three-year open-ended process that drags on and on," she said.
Connet and Holloway, in an interview with the Lightning this week, said their intent is not to delay. But they do plan to explore solutions that will take some time — such as "wayfinding" signage that better directs visitors and motorists to parking and other destinations, including public buildings and attractions like the Playhouse Downtown and the Heritage Museum.
"It's a system of signage that you're using to help people find the place they're looking for and it's tied together through design," said Holloway.
Another idea the city could initiate even sooner is system that would allow people to use a cellphone to put time on parking meters either by calling an 800 number or using a smart phone app.
"It's something we can fairly quickly as a stopgap," Connet said.
Holloway would like to set up the city as a kind of clearinghouse for leased parking.
Downtown has 165 businesses, although no one has an exact number of employees. Ritchey's parking committee is trying to add up that number now. Holloway said there are 120 free parking spaces on the east side of Washington Street, and maybe 100 more on the west side.
Holloway and others point out that the walk from the city-owned Dogwood lot is no farther than the walk from the Walmart parking lot to the dairy case. Yet people perceive a parking problem downtown because they can't see the store they want to visit. A calculation showed there are metered spaces available. If parkers were using all the meters from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, the city would make $225,000 a year. The number it actually collects is $42,000.
Council members say they will respond to the issue.
"Obviously, we know it's a problem," said Councilman Ron Stephens. "I want to do what we can with it. We're getting into what to do with the meters. Reading what they've been doing at these meetings, I hope they will go through Lew and not try to operate separately."
He said when the city bagged meters to allow free parking for Christmas shopping, he got three calls from the public saying downtown employees had filled the spaces before 9 a.m.
"It is an issue and I want us to get into it and I'm sure we will," he said. City officials have looked at a parking deck, Stephens said, but the market now probably will not support one.
Main Street jeweler Stan Shelley said he hopes to see a solution, too, although he doubts the city has money to spend.
"I think it's real, I think it is a problem," he said. "The ideal solutions would be inside Church and King but there's just no room. A parking lot that's two blocks away people don't want to use."
He said he understands the constraints on the City Council, too.
"For two years they really have not (focused on parking) but on the other hand they don't have much money and lots of times they look at the Dogwood lot and it's not full," he said. "Downtown employees are really hollering that they have no place to park; I would like some free parking somewhere for downtown employees. I hate to see them pay for parking; it's not like they're overpaid anyway."
Connet and Holloway said growing traffic is a problem many communities would envy.
"Every community with a vibrant downtown has either a real or perceived parking problem," Connet said.
A parking deck or a lines of cars in a square block of parking is not what attracts people downtown to begin with, Holloway pointed out.
"People come to the (Main Street) district because of the way that it feels," he said. "You also have to keep your focus on that, recognizing that turning it into the type of experience people expect at a strip mall or big box store is going to take away from the experience people are coming for."