Changes coming to paid parking plan

The Fayetteville City Council scaled back the hours of paid parking after a lengthy discussion at Tuesday night’s meeting. Beginning Oct. 1, parking enforcement will begin at 2 p.m. instead of 10 a.m. in the Dickson Street area.

Council members hope the changes will provide some immediate relief to business who say the new plan is to blame for a significant drop in revenue during daytime hours.

The unscheduled discussion was added to the agenda in reaction to the Dickson Street Merchants Association’s recent demand that immediate changes be made to the new parking plan which was established in August to provide revenue for a parking deck.

Merchants insisted that the city scale back the plan to only include Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and even threatened to bring the issue to a public vote.

The city’s legal staff, however, noted that due to Arkansas state law, the next available opportunity for a public-initiated repeal vote would be November 2012, a date the business owners most likely won’t be willing to wait for.

Business owners speak out

About a dozen owners were in attendance to reiterate last week’s claims that paid parking was a much bigger problem than they had anticipated.

Neal Crawford, owner of Jose’s Restaurant, said that in the 22 years he’s been on Dickson Street, he’s never seen something have such a negative impact.

“The thing I love about Dickson Street is you can go have a taco at Jose’s, or a beer at the brew pub, or see a band at George’s – whatever mood you’re in, there’s something to accommodate,” he said. “It’s a great experience and we need the street to continue to flourish.”

But, he said, that great experience is being threatened by an alarming drop in revenue paired with a potentially devastating longterm effect on the businesses’ regular customers.

“We’re changing their habits,” he said, “and we’ve got to get them back.”

Feltner Brothers co-owner Travis Feltner said it’s not just the long-standing restaurants that are feeling the effects.

“Since we opened a year ago, we have turned a significant profit every single month,” he said. But, his restaurant just barely broke even in August, he told the council. “I’m not in the business of breaking even,” said Feltner.

“If my business cannot survive on Dickson Street, we’ll rip everything out of that building and we’ll move somewhere else. I’m not going to let something like this put me out of business.”

The retail sector was also represented Tuesday night.

Branton Moore, of Highroller Cyclery, spoke on behalf of the 38-year-old bike shop located on the corner of Spring Street and School Avenue. “We feel affected as well,” he said. “We’ve seen about a 35% decrease in sales since the implementation of paid parking.”

Three Dickson Street Bookshop owners and employees also spoke up. “Our business is down far enough that we’re going to have to lay someone off or reduce hours,” said Don Choffel.

Staff suggests minor adjustments

Don Marr, the city’s chief of staff, was in favor of making some minor adjustments to the plan, but urged the council not to make any drastic changes yet. A plan that took over eight months to design needs more than five weeks of evaluation, he said.

Marr said he’s had businesses come to him with news of recent revenue drops who are not located in the Dickson Street area.

“We’re seeing an economic impact and we’re seeing people spend less, but we don’t know how much of it is the economy and how much of it is paid parking,” he said. “We will have an idea after we have a three-month period to look at it, though,” he added, referring to the evaluation period that was built into the original parking plan.

Judging by data collected over the last few weeks, which city staff warned may be over-projected due to the recent Razorback home football game and some Walton Arts Center events, complying with the merchants’ specific demands could mean a 50% annual loss in parking revenue. Paul Becker, the city’s finance director, said cutting back enforcement to just Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights would only generate enough money to pay for the parking equipment itself and wouldn’t begin to produce any money for a parking deck for at least five years.

Chamber of Commerce president Steve Clark asked the council to at least suspend parking enforcement to 2 p.m., something that the city said would account for about a 10% loss in revenue.

“Normally I would say never act when you don’t have all the facts,” said Clark. “And I’m not saying throw out the baby and the bath water at the same time, but merchants that are members of our chamber and those who are not members are suffering.”

A decision is made

After nearly two hours of discussion, the council voted unanimously to scale back the plan to a 2 p.m. start time.

“I know this might not be the solution that everybody wanted tonight,” said Ward 2 alderman Matthew Petty. “But I do think it’s a responsible decision with the data that we have right now.”

Petty insisted that an answer would be found. “We got into this together, we’re still in this together, and we’re going to finish this together.”

“I hope that we find the magic spot,” said Ward 3 alderman Bobby Ferrell, speaking of a timeframe that would allow the plan to work without putting owners out of business. “We’re going to do the best we can.”

The changes made Tuesday evening are just an interim step. City staff will evaluate data over the next few months such as sales tax and HMR tax revenue before making any final recommendations to the council on Dec. 7.