Downtown business owners across Maine and the country lament that more customers would walk through their doors if only there were more parking spaces in front of their establishments. After hearing this refrain, the Aroostook County town of Houlton decided to investigate.
Although a fuller study has yet to begin, a brief review by the police chief found that downtown business owners and employees frequently filled the prime parking spots. The chief, Joe McKenna, suggested — and rightly so — that business owners and their employees park in Houlton’s downtown parking lots instead.
The solution to this conundrum is simple: Business owners should leave the prime spots for their customers and ensure their employees do the same.
This message is a hard sell, however, and towns and cities go to absurd lengths to try to resolve the problem in other ways.
A Downtown Parking Advisory Committee in Bangor spent months looking for a solution to a lack of on-street parking spaces in the core of the city. It recommended installing parking meters on the most heavily traveled thoroughfares. This follows the recommendations of national experts to value the most desirable parking spaces by putting a price on them. Too often on-street parking is free, though of limited duration, while a downtown garage charges for parking. This is the case in Bangor, though the first two hours in the downtown garage are free. The result is that people have little incentive to park in the garage and walk to their destination instead of try to park in front of it.
The Bangor City Council’s Business and Economic Development Committee rejected the meter recommendation.
The core of Bangor’s parking problem is “car shufflers,” those who work or own businesses downtown and park in the free but time-limited spaces on city streets, according to Councilor Gibran Graham, chair of the parking committee. When their time in one spot expires, a shuffler moves his or her car to another space, often only a few feet away. There’s no penalty in place to discourage the practice.
This is not a problem unique to Maine.
“Downtown merchants and their employees often park in front of their stores or in other choice parking spaces and then complain they lose business because parking space is insufficient,” Roberta Brandes Gratz wrote in the Dec. 15, 2006, issue of national newsletter Downtown Idea Exchange. “The least desirable, often inconvenient spaces are left for the customers everyone wants.”
The problem in many communities is not a lack of downtown parking spaces but instead how they are used.
“This really is a simple problem to solve,” Nancy Ketch, community and economic development director in Houlton, said. “It is not simple to get buy-in.”
Many large retailers, such as grocery stores and malls, restrict where employees can park, often requiring they park on the outer edges of lots and leave the best spaces for customers. Some provide separate employee parking lots.
The same thinking should apply to downtown parking. Business owners should ensure they and their employees park in the city’s many lots or the downtown parking garage. Many businesses already pay for all or a portion of this parking. This simple practice leaves prime parking spots for customers, without an absurdly complicated policy solution.