In late summer 2012, Salem’s Mayor Anna Peterson established a 9-person task force to solve parking issues in areas around the city such as historic downtown, the Capitol Mall and West Salem.

Chaired by Ward 1 Councilor Chuck Bennett, the force set a goal of returning to Salem City Council this spring with recommendations.

The scope of the task force was large, and in downtown meant finding solutions to issues of Downtown vibrancy and economic vitality in terms of street parking, downtown parking structures and keeping the parking system financially stable.

The dominant hope of downtown businesses was that something would be done to make their district a more convenient place to visit.  They were frustrated by the current two-hour-per-blockface-per-day parking limit because it cost them customer good will.

On April 2, 2013, the Task Force recommended the city transition to all-metered, on-street downtown parking over the course of approximately three years.  The meter stations they proposed would be positioned one per each block.

This suggestion, Bennett explains, is based on the need for city revenue.  The “free” downtown parking currently costs the city “well over a million bucks” every year, he says.  “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Do we want to take money from the [City of Salem] General Fund, and money from Urban Renewal, or do we want to look at paid parking downtown?”

Downtown business critics are concerned that the task force has recommended actions that may make their customers even less comfortable than the 2-hour limits do now, and that forcing their customers to solve city revenue problems will drive their business out to Lancaster or other areas that offer free parking.

The proper entity to make the decision is the City Council, and Bennett points out that no decision has yet been made.   The appropriate and necessary time for public input has nearly arrived, he says.  “I expect extensive public involvement.”

Sheri Warghren, Downtown Revitalization Manager of the Urban Development Department notes that the task force will hold a final work session on April 29th, “and then we’ll get directions as to what the next steps will be,” including public hearings.

The City Council will decide nothing until “after hearing from all interested parties, especially downtown business owners and customers,” Bennett adds.   Any change will “require a detailed evaluation of impacts on downtown vitality, businesses and customers.”

At a recent CityWatch meeting he predicted, “There will be a lot of discussion on this.  As you might guess, it is popular with some, and wildly unpopular with others.  Some say it would devastate downtown – others that it doesn’t matter at all.  Some say its one of our great public services in Salem, that people can park right in front of Penny’s and walk right in.”

Bennett will be watching the process of public comment closely, he says, “to make sure it fully informs any council action. This is a complicated issue that will require a great deal of work.”