For Les McCurdy, owner of McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre, the potential loss of his business’s valet parking area was no laughing matter.
Before the club opened in its new downtown location on Ringling Boulevard in June, McCurdy applied for a valet parking permit from the city. Plans called for a staging area in front of the theater on a side street off Ringling. That staging area would include the use of diagonal parking spaces — something explicitly barred by the city code.
Because the side street was a low-traffic, one-way area, city staff granted McCurdy’s a permit on a trial basis to determine the feasibility of the valet operation. Since then, McCurdy says, almost everything has gone smoothly. There was one day when the city suggested a different configuration and traffic backed into Ringling, he said, but under the proposed system, he saw few problems.
“The one thing that’s good with us — just like with a Van Wezel or any theater like that — we know exactly when our cars are coming in or leaving,” McCurdy said. “Our reservations reflect 90% of our business. The valet parker knows before he staffs the evening how many people we’re going to have, and he has a good idea of how many people he needs to move that.”
City staff, however, saw it differently. After a trial period of roughly three weeks, the city denied McCurdy’s valet application. In addition to the disallowed use of diagonal spaces, staff members said they observed or received notice of valet traffic backing up to the main stretch of the road three or four times.
“I saw some confusion in the (side street) most weekends,” said Alex DavisShaw, a city engineer. “I saw a couple of days that I witnessed backing out into Ringling.”
McCurdy appealed the decision to the City Commission. In addition to disputing the severity of the issues, he said that the side street staging area was important for his business. The valet area allows McCurdy’s to more easily accommodate elderly customers and people with disabilities, provides more visibility for passing cars and enables staff to direct customers who aren’t valet parking to other spaces in the area.
The city recommended an off-site staging area in a nearby parking garage on Links Avenue. McCurdy said that, in addition to decreasing the visibility and proximity of the valet parking area, customers dropping off their car at the lot would cut through landscaping on Ringling to get to the theater.
“There’s not really a secure walkway that way,” McCurdy said. “As much as we tell them not to go there, they’ll do it anyway.”
When the Sarasota City Commission heard McCurdy’s appeal, it was sympathetic to supporting his business, widely seen as a boon for the east end of the downtown district. The board voted unanimously to give the comedy theater an extended, nine-month trial period to run its valet operation.
The commission gave its blessings to McCurdy’s, but staff is still concerned about the effects the valet service might have on nearby traffic. DavisShaw said McCurdy and valet operator Florida Quality Parking assured the city they would determine the proper staffing levels to create a steady flow of cars in and out of the staging area.
If that doesn’t happen, however, DavisShaw said the city could conduct a more detailed traffic study to see if an effective valet service could operate on the side street regardless of its staffing level. In the meantime, Parking Director Mark Lyons said the city would keep a close eye on the situation in the months to come.
“We will do in-person monitoring and have staff monitor not only traffic conditions, but their staffing levels,” Lyons said.