Short Term Parking Perk

November 18, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Downtown retailers and restaurant owners could have one less Grinch to wrestle with this holiday season, if city commissioners approve a six-week free-parking promotion at four city-owned ramps.

Parking commissioners recently approved a holiday parking initiative from Parking Services that would allow merchants to hand out coupons to their customers good for one hour of free parking in the Louis Campau, Ottawa Fulton, Monroe Center and Pearl Ionia ramps.

Only the Monroe Center ramp currently offers 60 minutes of no-charge parking, and that offer is only good until 6 p.m.

City commissioners are expected to review the pilot program Nov. 22, just three days before the program would begin on the day after Thanksgiving, one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

“I just got carried away with the spirit of the holidays,” said a smiling Pam Ritsema, Parking Services director, of why she brought the proposal to the commission.

It’s the first time in many moons that board members have agreed to a special program.

“This is a strong benefit to downtown merchants. We have a long history of saying ‘no’ to free parking,” said Ritsema.

The last time the commission heard a plea for special parking came in May from a group of restaurant owners who asked that a “parking zone” be created for Monday and Tuesday nights during the summer that offered $2 rates in the lots just south of Van Andel Arena.

Although commissioners denied the request, Ritsema told the group that one of the lots in the area already has free nighttime parking when there isn’t an event at the arena — which is often dark on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The free-parking promotion would run from Nov. 25 through Dec. 31. The intent of it is to raise traffic to downtown stores and restaurants during the holiday season. But not all commissioners felt the program would accomplish its goal.

“That is not the reason they’ll come downtown. You’re going to open Pandora’s box by doing this,” said Commissioner David Kammeraad, who also owns Preusser Jewelers at 125 Ottawa Ave. NW.

Kammeraad, who thought the program had good public relations possibilities, said maybe downtown merchants and the parking department could work together to make free parking available to shoppers and diners instead of having the department go it alone.

“Certainly you don’t come down here to park. But this might be a good marketing tool to make people more aware of downtown,” said Commissioner David Leonard.

Commissioner Lisa Haynes agreed with Leonard and suggested that the program should be given a try, as it might make more people think about shopping downtown instead of heading to the suburban centers.

“This is a good public relations move that will be appreciated by the people,” said Jay Fowler, Downtown Development Authority executive director. “Merchants will support the program.”

Commissioner Monica Sekulich recommended that the free-parking offer be turned into a pilot program to see how it would affect revenue to Parking Services, and to determine if the merchants would be interested in working with the department to continue it.

“We’re willing to take this on as a pilot program,” said Ritsema, who guessed that her department would lose about $15,000 in revenue over those six weeks.    

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