A little more than a year after the fact, the decision to change how people pay to park in downtown garages has put significantly more bumpers between the lines. And while merchants don't say the move to give downtown patrons an hour of free parking has brought in more customers or revenue to their business, most agree it was a positive move.
The Parking Task Force-composed of business owners, restaurateurs and others-met for more than a year in 2003 and 2004 with consultant Carl Walker, Inc., and the International Downtown Association to approve the fee change. They eliminated restaurant and retail validation, where business owners bought stickers to compensate their patron's parking for an hour for up to four hours.
In March of last year, the task force, and subsequently CCDC, approved a change that upped the hourly parking rate to $1.50, while giving users an hour free parking for all garage users except those at the county courthouse. Monthly parking rates were also set at $79, up from $70.
The results: Over 78,000 more tickets have been purchased in downtown garages this year than last year-a more than 16 percent improvement of visitors to the Downtown Public Parking System, which includes almost all the parking garages downtown. Similarly there was just under a 17 percent increase to CCDC's revenue, which, according to Executive Director Phil Kushlan, will be used for maintenance and marketing activities. Of its $1,215,429 budget, maintenance runs about $250,000 every two years, Kushlan said.
Downtown merchants like Sean Ahern, who owns the Book and Game Company, Mick Hanks, owner of To the Nynes clothing shop and Gregory Kaslo, who owns the Egyptian Theatre, say they haven't heard customers complaining about the fee change.
"People like the fact it's there, but most don't realize they get an hour free parking," Hanks said. "It would be beneficial to make people more aware of the free hour. It's a good deal, it makes sense and I haven't noticed a complaint."
Mary Wilson, owner of downtown boutique Ishi, served on the Parking Task Force and said the experts she and other concerned business owners called in to recommend the changes gave invaluable information to the task force and CCDC. The changes they suggested, Wilson said, have ultimately quelled the fears of many downtown merchants. Previously, merchants and the Downtown Boise Association had fought any CCDC requests for a rate increase.
"I hear almost no complaints about parking downtown now, where before I had a lot of complaints," Wilson said. "A determining factor for me (approving the change) was the percentage of those who used the validation system was small-now the vast majority of people are reaping more of a benefit."
Mark Carringer, owner of Moon's Café, said he misses the validation system, where merchants purchased 28-cent stickers worth an hour of free customer parking, because it was a perk to give his customers. "I don't validate anymore, but I haven't noticed too much a difference (in comparison to before the change) ... or complaints other than, we need more parking downtown," Carringer said.
Kathy Wali, owner of Cricket clothing shop, echoed Carringer's nostalgia for validation. "I wish I could validate customer parking; it was a nice service I didn't mind paying for," she said. "The hour free is not enough for lunch and shopping. The validation was one thing I could offer to compete with the mall."
She said many merchants were against nixing the validation system and compared Boise to larger cities that validate certain garages.
Many merchants reiterated the idea that there should be more of an emphasis on marketing in CCDC's plan. Rachel Smith, a downtown employee, said she constantly has to inform customers and other patrons of the perks of parking downtown.
"They don't know there even is parking downtown. It would help downtown greatly if they ran advertisements regarding garages and (parking) meters."
Tim Kendall, general manager at the Piper Pub, indicated that this trend has decreased at his downtown eatery. "At the beginning, we were bombarded by people asking for validation, but now it's just a couple a week," he said. "I was nervous on how customers would respond, but it's been very little, it's more positive than negative, since the first hour is free. I haven't seen either more or less business with the change, but it hasn't turned people away."
But others, like Kushlan and Clay Carley, a past DBA-president who sat as president of the Parking Task Force funded by CCDC, said the perception of downtown parking before was that it was inconvienent and expensive, and that a year of the new system has been an unexpected pleasure.
"I was frustrated by what I think is a misconception," Carley said. "But now I'm surprised by the outcome."
Carley said he has not followed up with CCDC to see whether they have met goals set by the task force, such as marketing, maintenance and re-evaluation of the new system, but added, "The structural changes to the system were very well received and would not have come about without the task force."
One of the goals set by the task force included having a third party analyze the way parking is managed in the city. Currently CCDC is in charge of the structural parking and surface lots-that is, off-street parking-while Boise City takes care of the on-street parking at the metered zones and timed zones on the periphery of the downtown core.
Tana Wardel, Boise City parking control manager, said the decision to merge the two agencies governing parking downtown is not a city issue, but added, "I agree Boise City should manage the parking. CCDC is a developmental organization. The city should delegate parking."
She said for years the city has worked with the DBA and CCDC on issues involving where the two parking areas meet-mostly involving employees parking downtown.
Most of the downtown employees contacted by BW said their employers pay for monthly parking, like at Ishi, where Wilson pays about $300 a month to provide her employees with monthly passes at the garage. But the cost of reserved spaces remains a contentious issue among minimum-wage earners who must pay to go to work.
"The city should not be responsible for employee's parking," said Jules Viosca, who works for Idaho Camera downtown, "but something has to be done do help those working downtown who have to pay to park while getting paid $5 an hour. Ninety-five percent of the businesses downtown can't afford to compensate for parking, and for a city that takes pride in taking care of people, something should be done to help the employees in a growing downtown." Kendall at the Piper Pub agreed that parking for employees remains "an issue," especially given the monthly rate increases, but said that he couldn't think of a solution to the problem.
Carley agreed that costs to employees are a concern that should not be ignored. "I haven't followed up on the employee issue," he said, "but the task force should convene one more time to follow up with CCDC on the matter; it should be done."