Easter weekend has come and gone, and the merchants who begged the Sarasota City Commission to eliminate the paid parking meter program got their wish when the program was canceled. The last month of the season brought the return of free parking to Sarasota.
But a month after the paid parking program was eliminated and two-hour parking was restored, some merchants and area officials aren’t sure if the decision made much difference on Main Street. In fact, some merchants say business has dropped since the parking-meter program was eliminated.
Jim Sullivan, owner of Patrick’s Restaurant and Tavern, said there was more parking to be had when the meter program was in place.
“Believe it or not, there were merchants on Main Street who liked the meters and benefited from them,” Sullivan said. “There was always a space where my customers could park for an hour and have lunch when the meters were in place.”
Those spaces, Sullivan and others said, are gone now and are once again taken by employees who take advantage of the free parking to be closer to their Main Street employers.
Sullivan said he thinks his own employees are hogging the spaces now, too.
“There are 50 restaurants on Main Street and they all come with employees coming to work,” Sullivan said. “I tell my employees not to park there, but I don’t have time to monitor them because I’m running a business.”
Optometrist Ron Soto, owner of Soto’s Optical Boutique, said his business improved when the meters were in place and fell off when the program was discontinued.
“My customers are stuck driving around the block three times again and coming in frustrated because all they are trying to do is drop off a pair of glasses,” Soto said.
When the meters were in place, Soto said his customers had no trouble finding a space and even balked at parking in one of the few spaces he has behind his shop.
“They told me it was easier to plunk 50 cents for a spot, and they were happy they could actually park on Main Street again,” Soto said.
Now, Soto says it’s a daily occurrence watching waiters park their cars in front of his store before their shifts begin.
“What’s good for my business may not make my neighbors here happy,” Soto said. “But we took two steps forward and three steps back in the minds of many around here when the program was canceled prematurely.”
Soto, who recently joined a newly formed city parking advisory committee, said he thinks all the city-owned lots and parking garages should stay free, and it should cost motorists to park on Main Street.
James Derheim, the owner of European Focus and the leader of a “Bag the Meters” rally in February that helped lead to the removal of the meters, admits that downtown merchants have an uphill battle ahead of them.
“We all are guilty of hogging the parking spaces, and it has to stop,” said Derheim, who plans to work with merchants to keep employees off Main Street next season.
In the meantime, what has changed, Derheim said, is the mindset of the downtown customer base.
“The one thing that immediately disappeared was the negativity and the upset customers complaining when they walked in the door,” Derheim said. “Now we’re back to asking customers how we can help them today instead of apologizing for the meters.”
City and county officials, though, say it’s impossible to gauge whether the removal of the paid parking system bolstered season sales or even was the right move in the long run.
City Parking Manager Park Lyons said he’s observed a packed Main Street since the paid program ended.
“We’ve had some complaints from merchants and individuals who complain they don’t have enough spaces out front now,” Lyons said. “It’s hard to keep everyone happy.”
With seasonal traffic leaving this week, Lyons said, it will be tough to compare the real effect of the decision to remove the meters until next season.
And the Palm Avenue parking garage, which was only hovering at a 17% usage rate when the paid program was in effect, is being used even less.
“There’s slightly less traffic in the garage now, and it’s only utilized more when the city holds large events,” Lyons said.
Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that although season numbers for March and April don’t come out until next month, she’s heard positive information about this being a great season — everywhere except downtown.
“The only area where I have heard some conflicting statements was in downtown Sarasota,” Haley said. “Some raved and others said it was terrible because of the meters.”
Haley said the conflicting data concerned her “because everyone else in the county was so strong.”
“It led me to believe that everyone along Main Street needed to be polled to see how the meters were really affecting business,” Haley said.
Haley, in fact, was getting ready to poll every downtown merchant when the commission canceled the meter program. A poll wouldn’t work now, she said.
“We will never know how bad it was because, in my opinion, the meters weren’t in long enough to find out,” Haley said.
Siesta Beach Seasonal Impact
Siesta Key Beach’s No. 1 beach ranking will have a lot to do with positive season numbers that will be revealed at the end of the month.
Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau President Virginia Haley can’t report officially on how this season was for Sarasota County until final numbers are revealed at the end of April. But Haley said she believes it will most likely be the best season since 2008 because of Dr. Beach’s ranking.
“Being ranked No. 1 and having the money this year to advertise that we had the No. 1 beach created a huge regional impact,” Haley said.
Hotel occupancy rates countywide, Haley said, were so high that she and her staff spent countless hours this season calling hotels trying to help people find available rooms.
“We were calling hotels for people and just plain not finding rooms for them anywhere,” Haley said.
Haley said that when the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key closed in 2010, many of those seasonal visitors left for Fort Myers Beach and Anna Maria Island.
“But when Siesta Key was ranked the No. 1 beach, data shows we got those visitors back again this year,” Haley said.
January and February tourist tax collection numbers, Haley said, were 17% ahead of the previous year, and Haley expects similar, if not better numbers, for March and April.
“We are hearing very, very strong reports from restaurants and other merchants that it was just a super season,” Haley said.