Rates at two city-owned parking garages in downtown Portland are set to rise 40% in an attempt to drum up an additional $160,000 in revenue for the city's fiscal-year 2013 budget. Passed last Monday by the city council, the rate increase has irked some downtown business interests, who say higher fees could prevent shoppers and tourists from visiting the area.
"The biggest [issue] for us is the size of the increase," says Jan Beitzer, executive director at Portland's Downtown District. "We are coming out of a recession, and I think it's a little difficult for people to understand why that was a reasonable proposition."
The Elm Street and Spring Street garages will up hourly rates from $1.25 to $1.75 an hour, with daily rates rising from $12 to $21. Monthly rates will remain unchanged at $110, but a previously refundable $10 deposit will become a non-refundable $10 activation fee when the rate hikes take effect on July 1.
Christian Steppe, manager of the Renys store at 540 Congress St., says he hears customers complaining about parking issues "every day," but does not think the rate increase will have a huge impact on the store's business.
"I do not think it will affect us on a large scale, but I think it hinders future economic growth in the arts district," he says. "In this economy, we should be making it more inviting for individuals who are trying to spur growth and development."
Steppe says that while Portland Downtown District's Park & Shop program helps to defray the cost of downtown parking -- customers can get stamps by visiting many local businesses that can be redeemed for up to two hours of free parking -- an event at the Cumberland County Civic Center, which has a capacity of 6,700, can throw the whole parking equation out of whack. "Parking in Portland is very challenging no matter where you are, but if there is an event at the civic center, some garages are full and only [take] monthly passes," he says.
Parking fees can put downtown businesses at a real disadvantage compared with the more shopper-centric parking layouts of southern Maine's other retail hotspots, says Steve Crane, general manager of the civic center. "You get free parking at the [Maine] Mall and free parking in Freeport."
Still, Crane sees the increased fees as more of an inconvenience than a death knell for consumer and tourist activity in the city. "Between the Old Port, the waterfront and Congress, there are a lot of desirable reasons to come downtown. I don't think parking is going to deter people," he says.
Parking officials say the new rates simply bring prices more in line with the city's private parking enterprises.
"The private sector has already set the market -- we are just trying to keep at the lower end of that," says Parking Manager John Peverada. "The city of Portland is giving parkers a good deal."
A recent survey done by the city shows average rates across 15 downtown parking garages hovering around $2.48 for the first hour, $2.13 for each additional hour and $24.50 for daily parking (for a rundown of fees at Portland's downtown parking garages, see red locations on map).
View Portland parking garages in a larger map
Rates will not change at two other city-owned garages on Commercial and Temple streets, which are overseen by MHR Management and already charge higher prices closer to the market average. "We're still less than anybody else, but we have a responsibility to the taxpayers" to keep revenue rolling in, says Peverada.
He also cites rising operational costs and an upcoming $300,000 capital repair project at the Elm Street garage as factors in the need to raise parking fees.
Beitzer of Portland's Downtown District says raising rates does a disservice to the downtown business community, which is ever wary of limiting access to the city's shops, venues and restaurants. "It's generally our view that city-owned garages should be used to promote economic development and not be seen as equivalent to what the private sector does," says Beitzer, noting that such garages do not pay taxes.
"For them to say they should be getting the same rate as the private sector does seem a little out of kilter," she says.
Peter Burke, general manager of Binga's Stadium Smokehouse and Sports Bar on Free Street, says parking is "always tight around here," but sees promise in the city's new solar-powered parking pay stations currently being installed throughout the downtown area.
The 18 new multi-space meters accept coins and debit and credit cards, dispensing a ticket that motorists must display inside their vehicle's dashboard. The tickets can be used at any metered spot in the city, allowing drivers to use one ticket for multiple instances of parking within a two-hour period.
"It's going to make it more convenient for the general public to pay for parking," says Burke. "In the past, if you put money in the meter, came out and had an hour left, you drove away and another car took the benefit of it."
The new meters will charge $1 per hour between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. and are located in some of the city's busiest commercial districts, including Commercial, Fore and Federal streets as well as three in the vicinity of Maine Medical Center (see yellow locations on map).
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