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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Don't fix what's not broken

Hendersonville City Council members have before them a menu of changes they could adopt in response to complaints about the new parking meters downtown.

They would be wise to avoid making radical changes based on just 12 weeks of experience and statistics. Some of the options on the menu risk undercutting the financial structure the city has carefully constructed to generate the revenue needed to cover the parking garage debt service.

To their credit, city administrators have been open and transparent in rolling out paid parking downtown and taking the pulse of stakeholders. Given the kneejerk opposition to anything new or different from our reliably grumpy “don’t change anything, ever, no matter what” crowd, it’s unsurprising that City Hall has received grievances.

The city staff and the city’s Downtown Advisory Committee did the right thing when it convened meetings with shopkeepers, restaurateurs and Main Street property owners to get their feedback on the new paid parking. Around 25 business owners turned out for the advisory committee’s public input meeting on June 13 “to let it all out there.”

In his very thorough report to the City Council on June 28, Assistant City Manager Brian Pahle ticked off the goals paid parking was designed to achieve:

  • Raise sufficient revenue to cover the debt service on the $12 million parking deck.
  • Move employees off Main Street and free up those spaces for paying customers and clients.
  • Create easy-to-use payment options ranging from cash to kiosks to a smart phone app.
  • Create incentives for business owners and downtown employees to buy monthly off-Main parking lot permits.
  • Maintain “an active business district.”

The new system has worked well achieving the first three bullets; parking permits have seen slower sales than the city would have liked. The jury is out on whether paid parking is having a measurable negative effect on business. Our frequent windshield surveys would suggest that it is not. Yes, there are many more open spaces before 11 a.m. than there were on Feb. 28. That merely suggests to us is that the meters are working to achieve bullet No. 2.

Some proposed changes the downtown advisory board volleyed — lowering the increments of parking time from 1 hour to 30 minutes or 15 minutes, for instance — are easily enacted and unlikely to result in a harmful revenue drop. One recommendation, making the meters more “age friendly,” will solve itself over time as the 70s-and-up parkers enlist their grandkids to teach them how to use the ParkMobile app on their iPhone. Other ideas — such as lowering the $2/hour rate, charging less on the avenues or rolling back the free parking time from 7 at night to 6 or even 5 — would be either confusing, risky or financially catastrophic.

The public and downtown merchants would be wise to remember the choice City Council members made when they resurrected paid parking after a 50-year hiatus. They chose a user-pay model over a substantial property tax increase to cover the mortgage on the parking deck. If that choice were put to a referendum of city residents, we would wager 500 hours’ worth of parking that the meters would defeat the property tax.