Photo above: This is what one of the public open houses looked like

Councilor Chuck Bennett says that people paying to park their cars on downtown streets may prove an important way to address serious funding shortfalls.  He’s disappointed that the public and businesses haven’t paid more attention to the work of a Parking Task Force that he and Mayor Anna Peterson have led jointly since last September.   He says responses to the months of study the Task Force has conducted has been “few and far between.”

At the same time, a “parking petition” initiative led by downtown businessperson Carole Smith has received more than 7,000 signatures and is supported by more than 50 downtown businesses.  The petition, which Bennett describes as “ridiculous,” and, “a very bad idea,” suggests charging for parking in Parkades, a very different strategy than the Task Force’s solution to the problem.

Upcoming months will see the two strategies become a more prominent part of Salem public discussion, and may be on a collision course.

“Look,” Bennett says, “what we have downtown doesn’t work.”  He’s concerned that the Downtown Parking District in Salem currently looses $200,000 a year for operations plus $500,000 per year for parking garage maintenance.   He feels that, “if you’re using a parking space, you should pay for it,” likening the concept to the way roads are paid for by drivers when they fill up at the tank and are billed a gas tax.

The recommendations of his Task Force – which Bennett says will be discussed over the next few months by City Council with public input, and then refined with local businesses for the next several years – roughly suggest that the shortfall be addressed by charging for on-street parking, with free parking garages.

The “parking petition” recommends, alternately, that visitors pay $1/day to park in garages, and that street parking be free.  Bennett calls this approach, “wrong-headed, a mistake and a disaster for downtown.”

“What would happen,” he says, is that if the petition became reality, “downtown would quickly fill up with 600-800 state workers who would park there all day for free.  They would be crazy not to.”  This would blockade downtown businesses from their potential customers.
Smith disagrees.  “We had 35 successful years of free unlimited parking, and it was never a problem.  Even at lunch time we only had 75% occupancy, and [parking experts say] you need at least 85% before you put in time limits or meters management tools.”  She says the petition’s recommendation, for $1/day parking in garages, “would double the amount to money they would bring in, so instead of half million in parking permits, the city would bring in $1 million a year.”  The petition may likely be put on the local ballot in May 2014, where it would go to a public vote.

But Bennett insists that free street parking does not solve the problems of businesses.  Citing the many vacant storefronts that now line downtown streets he says. “It’s not as if free parking helps businesses.  Free parking has not resulted in an improved, upgraded downtown.”

Bennett is not sure why the community has not shown more interest in the Task Force or its recommendations.  He says he’s received “almost no comments.  I’ve probably got 5 or 6 emails on the matter from businesses.”  The city has additionally funded several outreach Open Houses, in the conference center and in a downtown storefront, that were sparsely attended.

“This is an attempt to improve downtown,” Bennett says.  “If it’s not right, let’s talk about it.  There is a recommendation now; let’s talk about that recommendation.”
He describes upcoming months as “a really good opportunity… for people to weigh in on the matter in front of Salem City Council.”

If the City Council votes to accept Task Force recommendations later this summer, Bennett anticipates the city will take another 2-3 years to work closely with local businesses to refine the on-street pay parking plan.   It is currently unclear what a May 2014 vote to approve the “parking petition” measure would mean for the Parking Task Force or its recommendations.