Downtown parking meters garnering mixed reactions after first three years of operation

Local business owners have started seeing the changes Kent City Council promised the new parking meters would bring to business since their installation in May 2015.

Bridget Susel, the director of the Kent Community Development Department, said meters had not been used downtown since the 1970s.

“They were brought back because when the downtown redevelopment was completed. Many of the first floor restaurants and retail operations wanted to fulfill greater turnover for patrons,” Susel said.

Lauren Heroux, the general manager of Tree City Coffee, said the local coffee shop was not directly involved in the decision-making process.

“I know the owners definitely paid attention to what was going on when it happened, but I don’t know that we necessarily had a say in whether or not it happened, either,” Heroux said.

Susel said businesses in the area began to notice an issue with people, mainly employees from neighboring establishments, parking in the spaces for long periods of time.

Susel said the Community Development Department created options for long-term employee parking farther away from the main roads “to ensure that those parking spots in front of the new businesses would be turning over.”

Padraigin O’Flynn, a shift manager at Tree City Coffee and Kent State student, said the meters are, in fact, not a viable parking option for her.

“A lot of us, I know, by federal law, we get breaks every two hours,” O’Flynn said. “But if it’s busy in here, I’m not going to take my break at two hours, so I might not be able to refill my meter, and then I can get a parking ticket. I don’t know, I just think it’s a big inconvenience for a lot of us.”

The alternatives, O’Flynn said, are not much better. Employees who cannot afford parking deck permits have to park farther away from their places of work, in the long-term free lots on Franklin Avenue or Gougler Avenue.

“I know the one free lot doesn’t even have parking lines, so a lot of times you can’t fit through the aisles, or you have a really high risk of getting your car hit or of getting scratched,” O’Flynn said.

The city purchased the meters from a company called IPS Group. Along with the physical meters, IPS Group’s computer program allows the city to monitor the meters remotely.

“We can log in and identify problems, tell what time somebody paid, how long it’s valid for, their method of payment,” Susel said. “It helps us basically manage them remotely without needing to go out in the field.”

Kent paid the initial startup cost, $288,711, as a small portion of a larger bond pulled for utility costs of the downtown redevelopment project. They were added to the city through Chapter 358 in the Kent Codified Ordinance.

Chapter 358.09 states all revenue must be paid into a Parking Meter Reserve Fund, “to defray the expense of the regulation and control of parking of traffic on public streets and regulation and control of parking traffic in the parking meter zones,” and to cover operations and maintenance costs.

“It specifies that any revenue generated from the meters after expenses have been accounted for goes to a dedicated parking fund that is used for parking purposes,” Susel said. “It’s used to update and replace broken meters, upgrade the meters when they get worn out, anything related to the parking downtown. It’s specifically for parking, and that’s by ordinance. That’s by law.”

After expenses, the meters brought in $87,077 in 2016. Although 2017 numbers are not available yet, Susel said she anticipates the numbers to look similar, as meter revenues and expenses have remained consistent.

Susel also contacted other cities in Ohio that use meters so the city could keep prices competitive, but on the lower end of the cost spectrum.

“Most of the downtown businesses that deal with food or retail service are pleased with the way it facilitates the turnover,” Susel said.

Heroux said the meters are helping in exactly this way.

“People used to park in those spots that would work close by, and then they wouldn’t have spots for other people,” Heroux said. “I think that really helped us, honestly.”

Heroux did admit, however, the extent of the meters’ benefit is not completely clear to her.

“It’s hard to say because our business increased anyway,” Heroux said. “I don’t know if the meters made a difference or not. I think it’s because we’ve been here for a while now.”

Jason Merlene, the owner of Last Exit Books and Coffeehouse on East Main Street, said the meters have hurt his business since their installation.

“People who would come and get coffee in the morning don’t want to have to stop, put money in the meter, just come in and grab a coffee and then get back in,” Merlene said. “That’s going to cost them an extra 50 cents every day to just stop and get coffee, so it hurts our morning coffee business the most.”

Merlene said the Community Development Department’s message that the meters are to help small businesses rather than generate revenue is inaccurate.

“For us, it hurts,” Merlene said.

Nicholas Hunter is the opinion editor. Contact him at [email protected]

Caelin Mills is a contributor. Contact her at [email protected]