To demonstrate the gravity of their demand that the Sarasota City Commission bag all downtown parking meters, business owners and residents — with all types of bags over their heads — are planning a rally at 5 p.m. Monday at Mattison’s City Grille in downtown Sarasota.
They will leave the restaurant in a silent march to City Hall for the 6 p.m. City Commission session.
James Derheim, president of European Focus, is the organizer of the protest, whose momentum was building Wednesday, as both the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association and the Downtown Sarasota Alliance pledged their support for shutting down the meters as soon as possible.
The organizations’ decisions came in response to pleas from more than 400 merchants and residents who signed a petition opposing the meters, along with the Downtown Improvement District’s endorsement Tuesday of bagging the meters.
Peter Fanning, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association and a DSA board member, broached the topic Wednesday during the DSA’s monthly board meeting.
“The DSA has been involved in parking assessment and implementation for almost two years, and has been on record of supporting parking meters, but I’m feeling a little uncomfortable, because so many of our constituents don’t agree with us,” Fanning said.
“I think we should reverse our prior position and support our members who are making good reasons for not having (the meters),” he added.
The comments came a day after the DID announced it was bowing to requests from local merchants who want the meters shut down.
In planning the rally, business owners have charged that the continued use of the meters has compounded problems stemming from roundabout construction at two intersections on Ringling Boulevard. Business owners maintain that customers are staying away from downtown.
Fanning said during the DSA meeting that residents no longer could ignore the merchants’ pleas.
“We should stop the bleeding, bag the meters and then come up with a long-term solution,” Fanning said. “We support the merchants here and are afraid we won’t have any businesses to frequent if we don’t start listening to them.”
DSA board member Paul Thorpe supported Fanning’s request and urged DSA board members to attend the rally Monday.
“Every merchant is impacted,” Thorpe said. “We’re asking they bag the meters during construction and meet with us to come up with a solution.”
Wth a 12-3 vote, the DSA board agreed to draft a letter of support for the merchants; it will be sent to the City Commission.
Not all the DSA members agreed with the action, however.
One DSA board member who disagreed with that plan, Chris Gallagher, said he was frustrated that the latest request to bag the meters followed the release of city data showing the meters weren’t bringing in as much revenue as city officials had expected. Instead of the 85% user rate city staff had anticipated, the data showed a 45% usage level since the meters came back online Oct. 1.
At the same time, usage of the Palm Avenue parking garage has yet to exceed the 15% level.
“My recommendation would be for the city not to do another knee-jerk reaction,” Gallagher said. “This was never about how much revenue was collected and was all about freeing up more parking spaces on Main Street.”
In the latter regard, Gallagher said, the meters had been successful.
“I saw an elderly couple get a parking spot on Main Street during the Farmers Market Saturday,” he said, adding that without meters in place, the couple never would have found the space.
Gallagher also said that Main Street spots are filled on weekends, and he had observed a bustling parking situation.
“I only support bagging the meters on Palm Avenue during roundabout construction,” Gallagher said.
DSA board member Michael Beaumier recommended the DSA consider lending support to a proposal for making parking in the Palm Avenue garage free before bagging the meters, to see if that helped the downtown situation. However, no one sided with him.
“The merchants need to be heard,” Thorpe said. “They are looking for relief right now in the height of their season, and we can figure something else out later.”
While the DSA board agreed to support the merchants, members said business owners need to meet with city officials, to develop a plan that would achieve success for the parking-meter program, perhaps with lower parking rates for downtown employees using specific parking areas, such as the Palm Avenue garage.
The controversial $24 million parking-meter program, which began last May, previously was bagged last summer, after merchants complained about the loss of business. The City Commission agreed to put the meters back into use Oct. 1, but only after city workers moved some of the meters east of U.S. 301, into the judicial district.
Vice Mayor Terry Turner has been the most vocal meter opponent on the City Commission.
“It’s time for the commission to admit the program failed and move on,” Turner said.
Update: Just a few months laters, the Sarasota City Commission agreed to remove the meters altogether.