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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 1 year ago

Parking committee focuses on downtown strategy

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The city is asking residents, merchants and property owners for insight on how to implement paid parking downtown later this year.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

For the first time in more than two years, the city’s Parking Advisory Committee gathered Jan. 23 at City Hall for a meeting.

The advisory board was reassembled this month as part of the city’s efforts to implement on-street paid parking downtown. In November, the City Commission voted 3-2 to approve a plan for installing parking meters downtown, a process staff intends to begin by May.

The duties of the parking committee are straightforward and limited in scope. The group is focused on downtown parking, working alongside Parking Manager Mark Lyons to provide guidance on the details of the new program. That includes rates, pay station locations, possible uses for parking revenue and ways to educate the public about the impending changes.

Lyons is hopeful that by drawing from a cross-section of the city, the committee members can also help disseminate and gather information to help ensure a smoother transition.

“That helps synthesize the whole program into the community by having them out there,” Lyons said. “And whatever they hear, they can bring that back and we can determine whether adjustments are necessary.”

If they haven’t bought in yet, hard core skeptics may not be swayed by another pitch. A 2016 survey of more than 130 Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association members showed 84% opposed to parking meters. But Lyons and committee members are optimistic attitudes are changing, dedicated to promoting the notion paid parking can help business downtown.

“Turnover is needed,” Lyons said. “We want to make sure those spaces are available to more people.”

The committee stands in stark contrast to the downtown merchants who vocally oppose paid parking. The board members are eager advocates for meters. When Lyons acknowledged that even people who are willing to pay to park would prefer a free space, Art To Walk On owner Eileen Hampshire insisted she’d personally rather pay, a sign of how convinced she is of the benefits.

That doesn’t mean the group is blind to the challenges associated with starting a paid parking program, particularly in a city where previous efforts to install meters have failed because of public outcry. Carl Shoffstall, elected committee chairman at the Jan. 23 meeting, stressed that the city needed to ensure the pay stations were easy to use from the moment they’re activated.

He said issues with equipment and messaging contributed to the failure of the city’s last downtown parking meter endeavor.

“The rollout was horrible,” Shoffstall said. “That’s what we’ve got to avoid from the get-go of this whole program.”

Although Shoffstall, a Lido Key resident, raised questions about paid parking at the beach and on St. Armands Circle during the meeting, Lyons steered the conversation back to downtown-related issues. Rather than plotting future expansions for paid parking, city staff says it’s focused on ensuring things work out where meters have already been improved.

“At present, we’re only looking to make sure the next step is met with the right objective and good outcomes,” Lyons said.

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