Business owners conflicted over effectiveness of downtown parking meters

Kaylee Peterson

When the city of Kent installed 225 parking meters downtown in 2015, they did so to support Kent’s downtown businesses. However, some of those businesses don’t agree that the meters are serving their purpose.

Downtown Kent contains 110 businesses, Kent economic developer Tom Wilke said. In an unscientific survey, KentWired contacted 60 businesses and 27 responded. Of those who responded, 16 businesses said they disliked the meters, 5 businesses liked them, and 6 businesses had mixed feelings or were indifferent.

Those who dislike the meters cited multiple reasons — losing customers, declining business, employee difficulties with getting to work and the frequency of tickets written for those who are violating meter hours.

Andrea Berry, owner of Baked in the Village, lost customers who do not want to pay to visit downtown, she said, especially because potential customers primarily work during daytime hours.

Tim Huth, owner of One Love Yoga, echoed the sentiment and said he’s seen a decline in business as a result of the meters and the new construction of the Avant 220 apartments and PizzaFire.

“We were seeing about a 30-40 percent growth rate, and when the meters went in, it just flatlined,” Huth said. “And then when the construction began behind our building, and they took up a good majority of that lot, we began to see a decline.”

Other businesses haven’t seen the meters affect their customers as much as they have their employees.

Austen French, the store manager for Dave’s Cosmic Subs, said it’s difficult for their employees to find parking downtown to come to work.

“What ends up happening, is everyone who works here has to park at the bridge of pay for a meter,” French said “The attendants get people right on the dot, so if they can’t make it back to their meter in time, then they have to pay 15 dollars just to come to work.”

Tessa Hushon, a service manager at Panini’s, agreed.

“If you work before five, you have to park under the bridge, there’s just no designated parking for employees,” she said.

Some employers, like Peace, Love, and Little Donuts, are combatting the issue by purchasing monthly parking passes through the PARTA parking deck for their shift leaders, though their hourly employees are expected to find parking on their own.

“Essentially, they’re paying a dollar an hour just to come to work,” said Alex Stayer, manager of Peace, Love, and Little Donuts.

Jason Merlene, owner of Empire, said he thinks the meters and the parking tickets that come from them have hurt Downtown Kent as a whole.

“I think there a few too many tickets being given out and it makes people disgruntled,” Merlene said. “(If they get a ticket) the purchase that they made suddenly costs $15 more. It creates a lot of ill will in people.”

Despite those who outright oppose the meters, there are those who are torn on the issue.

Brendan Smith, head chef of Bar 145, said he sees both sides.

“From an employee standpoint, it limits the parking we do have,” Smith said. “From a business standpoint, (the meters) help us regulate a flow of business so we don’t have a lot of people coming and sitting for a long time.”

William King of Euro Gyro, said while they get a lot of customer complaints about the lack of parking, it hasn’t necessarily affected their business.

TJ Ingersoll, owner of Fresco Mexican Grill & Salsa Bar, said the same.

“I haven’t seen a huge impact, but our number one complaint (from customers) is the parking downtown and that they keep building all these new buildings without adding any more garages or access for parking,” Ingersoll said. “They’re circling the block like five times before they can find a spot.”

At the June 7th city council meeting, Bridget Susel, the community development director, presented a financial report for the meters. In the report, Susel noted that the meters are not a significant revenue generator.

Dave Ruller, city manager, said making money was not the purpose of the meter implementation.

“It was done to promote turnover in front of the stores,” Ruller said. “The meters are serving their purpose.”

Susel agreed and added that downtown businesses appreciate the turnover in parking. Susel also added that she does not hear anything negative about the meters.

“People have become comfortable and are used to them,” Susel said.

Some business owners don’t agree that the meters are increasing turnover.

Mike Wilcox, manager at Ray’s place, said the meters have not done anything to increase business.

“It used to be two hour parking, but with the meters you can park all day and just add money,” Wilcox said. “It doesn’t really turnover cars as long as you feed the meters. (Increased turnover) is only true if people actually leave.”

Don Mishalan, general manager at Laziza, said if the city isn’t bringing in a giant revenue from the meters, he doesn’t see the point.

“I could understand if they were being used to pay for all of these new buildings and construction, but if they’re not, then there’s really no point,” Mishalan said.

According to a 2016 financial report for the parking meters, the meters bring in a net revenue of $87,077.32, although Susel said that doesn’t account for other costs. The city only receives 60 to 70 percent of every dollar taken in through credit cards and because of a predicted increase in credit card usage at the meters, there is also a prediction of decrease in revenue.

When asked about the negative reactions to parking meters from business owners, Susel said she’s heard positive feedback and the meters were put in for patron parking, not employee parking.

“They were put in to get customers in and out,” Sussel said. “There is plenty of free parking downtown, and business owners should be encouraging their employees to park there and not in front of businesses.”

The free parking Susel referred to is located under the bridge on Franklin Avenue, where there is free long-term parking. Additionally, free 2-hour parking can be found on College Avenue, South Depyster Street and the Main Street Bridge, but as most employees work shifts longer than two hours, these are not always feasible spots for them.

There are other parking lots around town, but during business hours — Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. — these lots are restricted to permit holders, which aren’t publically accessible.

While some business owners feel like this lack of available parking has hurt their businesses, others feel that the meters have done their job to help the city.

Michelle Sahr, who is associated with Off the Wagon, Kent Cheesemonger and Red Letter Days, said she thinks the meters are positive.

“I’ve found that there seems to be spots more often in front of our shops for customers,” she said.

Tom Simpson, owner of the Kent Stage, said there’s no such thing as free parking, and the parking meters help pay for the cost of those spaces. The Kent Stage requested that the city extend the meters to the side of their business on South Depeyster Street.

“Once the meters were in on Main Street, people saw Depeyster as free parking,” Simpson said. “With the meters, we can get some bags made to block off those spaces on the side of our building to make room for the tour buses that come through and need to unload right there.”

In an email, Mike Beder, owner of Tree City Coffee, said before the meters existed, employees of downtown and shop owners would park all day in the most prime parking spaces, and though the city tried to ask nicely, parking enforcement wasn’t very effective.

“If they can’t afford a few quarters for the convenience of the parking, they probably can’t afford the lunch or shopping to begin with,” Beder wrote.

Beder said he believes people are more upset about the principle of the parking meters and not that they have to pay.

“They mean there’s nowhere for them to park directly in front of where they want to go,” Beder said. “It’s city. Walk a block, it’s good for you.”

Despite the debate over the effectiveness of the meters, Susel said the city is pleased with them.

“They allow us to enforce the same two hour parking conditions that were already there,” Susel said.

Kaylee Peterson is the downtown reporter. Contact her at [email protected].