Parking Plea Shot Down

May 27, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — How important parking is to a bottom line was made evident when a baker’s dozen of downtown business owners, a coalition of restaurants and taverns near Van Andel Arena called the Arena Zone, had their representative pay a visit to the Parking Commission earlier this month.

At the meeting, Arena Zone President Dennis Moosbrugger said the public’s perception that little parking is available downtown and that it’s priced too high keep customers from coming downtown. If they can’t find a street space in front of his restaurant, he said, they drive around the block a few times and then head out.

Moosbrugger, who owns Bar Divani at

15 Ionia Ave. SW
, also told commissioners that most customers aren’t willing to spend $4 on parking to buy $10 worth of drinks, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays — the slowest business nights downtown.

So Moosbrugger made parking commissioners an offer. Members of the Arena Zone would discount food and beverages by about 20 percent on Monday and Tuesday nights for the summer if commissioners would agree to create a parking zone in the lots south of

Fulton Street
and lower the rates on those nights to $2. And, he added, the Arena Zone would pick up the tab to market the restaurant discounts and the parking zone.

“This is a test-market case for the summer,” said Moosbrugger, who has owned Bar Divani for more than two years. “We’d both be giving discounts.”

He felt the discounts would raise restaurant traffic on those nights by 30 percent to 50 percent.

“Our goal is the same as yours,” Moosbrugger said to commissioners, “to bring more people downtown.”

The Sierra Room, Tiki Bob’s Cantina, Louis Benton’s Steakhouse, Leo’s, The Bob, the Margarita Grill, Bistro Bella Vita, The Intersection, Taps, 48 West, San Chez Bistro, and the Mezze Café and Cabaret are the other Arena Zone members.

But Parking Commissioner Dan Barcheski said he would rather see the city promote parking for all of downtown’s businesses than subsidize the price of it for a few.

Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema said the commission has historically resisted giving discounts to select businesses and that parking rates generally have had little effect on nighttime business activity downtown.

Ritsema said her department had an interest in participating with the businesses, but she made it clear that she felt parking wasn’t the cause of slower business nights. She also said on non-event nights at the arena, like most Mondays and Tuesdays, a city-owned lot near the arena, and in the parking zone, has its gate up and offers free parking.

Michael Ellis, president of Ellis Parking Co., didn’t feel the parking discount would draw any more customers because the first few hundred who do come downtown park at the curbside meters, which are free after 5 p.m. And he wasn’t convinced a 20 percent discount would generate all that much additional traffic, either.

“You could give away close to free food and you’d still have slow nights,” said Ellis, who added that parking was a support function.

The commission never voted on the parking-zone request because no commissioner would make a motion to call for a vote. But commissioners did say a few things about the price of parking.

Barcheski felt the rates were as high as they should go. He also said that the city prevents private firms from entering into the market because it owns so many ramps and lots and that select ownership results in higher charges because there is little competition.

“We’re hurting the people in the short term who are here, or who want to be here,” he said.

Commissioner David Leonard said the board should look into leasing the operations of the city’s system to a private firm, adding that he has seen this arrangement reduce prices in other markets.

But Parking Commission Chairman Jack Hoffman countered that prices wouldn’t drop if the city got out of the parking business; instead, he felt rates would rise. He also said that the city isn’t preventing anyone from entering the market.

Ellis, a former parking commissioner, noted that a private operator likely couldn’t have built the Ottawa Fulton ramp and then only have charged $100 for monthly parking like the city did in 1996. He said privatizing the city’s system might result in lower prices for parkers, but only if there was an over-supply of spaces.

That doesn’t seem to be the case, though. The Downtown Development Authority, which owns a handful of the city’s downtown lots, recently met in a closed session to talk about buying property that would be used for more parking.

“We’re kind of short on supply,” said Ritsema.     

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