Morgantown takes an in-depth look at why we can’t have a little of what just about everyone wants.
When High Street parking spaces turn over fast, life is grand. If you want to grab takeout or order flowers or pick up a dress that’s been altered, you can find a spot, get in, and get out. Six times an hour is the sweet spot, parking officials say, and we’re often pretty close to it.
Not long ago, parking on High Street took persistence and luck. Employees of downtown businesses parked there, and commuting students did, too, all day sometimes, shoving customers off to the periphery. Ticketing didn’t stop it. What stopped it was when the Morgantown Parking Authority created the “green zone” meters in 2016. It raised parking from 50¢ to $1 an hour on high-demand blocks, with a two-hour time limit. It created a $100 ticket for flagrant violation—a disincentive powerful enough that the authority has resorted to it only a few times.
A lot of us grumbled about the extra quarters, but we like the outcome. “It’s amazing how many more people park in the garages now,” says MPA Executive Director Dana McKenzie. “You can come down any time of the day, and you’re going to find a parking spot close to where you want to go.”
That anecdote holds several truths. About our preference to park close and our tendency to pinch pennies, sure. But most instructively, about how a change in the price of parking often isn’t about parking authority revenues—it’s about nudging behavior. And it works.
On the scale of what’s most disgruntling in life, downtown parking ranks right up there with taxes and the weather. Drivers gripe that they can’t find parking, and that it’s too far away. They squawk about rate increases that make parking turn over so they can find it. They bellyache when they get tickets, even when they’re in the wrong.
We need parking regulation. It’s one of the foundations of a vibrant downtown. But as the MPA’s rules and rates have gotten more restrictive, some downtown merchants wonder if it’s too much. Morgantown decided to take a look.
No such thing as a free space
To address the question right up front of why we have to pay for parking: simple supply and demand.
It was the 1950s when demand first overtook supply. The city created the MPA, and the MPA built a double-decker parking garage—the one at the corner of Pleasant and Chestnut streets that we use today when we visit Black Bear Burritos or Mountain People’s Co-op.
The city set the MPA up as an “enterprise fund,” meaning it pays its own way through parking revenues. Council passes ordinances related to parking and approves rate changes, but the city does not finance the MPA—parkers do.
Decades passed, meters were installed, lots were paved, garages were built, all to meet growing demand. Eventually, maybe 15 years ago, the supply downtown and in the Wharf District arrived at about its current 2,202 spaces on the streets, in lots, and in garages.
The MPA turned its attention in 2007 to a perennial problem with downtown parking. “It used to be, we stopped issuing citations at 6 p.m., and after that it was free parking until 9 a.m.,” says McKenzie. He came on at the MPA in the mid-’90s, so he’d already seen a decade of changes at that time. “At 1, 2 in the morning you’d have as many people out on the street as at 1 in the afternoon. Why does the daytime customer have to pay but the nighttime customer doesn’t? Then, when you would come downtown at 9 a.m., you could not find a parking spot on High Street. We talked to council and business owners, did some research, and turned it into 24-hour parking.” The move had its detractors, but McKenzie says it worked. “That opened parking up tremendously downtown.”
The city’s 2,202 regulated spaces are not created equal. Over the years, the MPA has used its tools to differentiate zones, from higher rates in the green zone to programs like discounted permits that encourage employees to park in the garages.
McKenzie took over as executive director of the MPA when Tom Arnold retired in 2017. Keeping an effective balance that reflects the nature of the community—in our case, one where demand trends up and a large state university means an active nighttime economy—is part of the expertise he brings as a Certified Administrator of Public Parking, a credential he earned over three years and maintains through continuing education.
The MPA’s status as an enterprise fund leads some people who are honked off about parking to ask questions. Is the authority charging unfair rates to fill its own coffers? Does the city use the MPA to pad its revenues? We reviewed the past eight years of revenues and expenses in detail.
The parking authority gets revenues from fees for the privilege to park and from fines for abusing the privilege. MPA revenues have come to a little under $3 million a year, in recent years: around $2.4 million in fees and $500,000 in fines.
It spends money enforcing rules and collecting fines, building and maintaining lots and garages, and introducing technology that improves parking and enforcement. MPA expenses vary around $1 million for about 13 employees’ salaries and benefits, $800,000 to pay down the bonds on the Public Safety Building and Wharf District garages, and another $800,000-plus in capital expenses, maintenance, lot rent, credit card fees, insurance, and other operational expenses. Cash on hand at the end of the fiscal year runs between $1 million and $2 million.
Thanks a lot
Most affected by parking policy are the downtown merchants, and we talked with many of them. Some say parking is better than it’s ever been. In fact, three of the five MPA board members own businesses on High Street: Board President Charlie McEwuen, owner of Tanner’s Alley and in business downtown 42 years; Jeanne Hagan, owner of Pinocchio’s Books and Toys; and Amy Dale, co-owner of The Elegant Alley Cat.
Among downtown merchants not on the MPA board, Apothecary Ale House and Café co-owner Grace Hutchens speaks the thoughts of several when she says, although $1 an hour and 24-hour enforcement seem a little heavy-handed, parking is distributed well and she likes conveniences like the credit card machines in the lots.
Others aren’t as happy. Downtown businesses face a particular set of challenges. They compete with businesses outside city limits that don’t pay business & occupation tax and whose employees don’t pay the $3-a-week user fee. They compete with businesses inside city limits that have free parking. They say expensive parking, or even a feeling on the part of the public that downtown parking is expensive or hard to find, can directly affect their livelihoods.
Hiring downtown can be tough, for example, especially hiring part-time employees for whom parking, on top of the user fee, eats up a fair share of their pay. The permits for the garages are too expensive for part-timers, at $45 a month for the cheapest, says Chris Evans, co-owner of Tin 202 at High and Pleasant. How about a permit structured for people who work fewer hours? It makes sense. And it’s a request the MPA has under consideration, according to McEwuen.
Another business owner, one of several who preferred to speak off the record, suggests free parking away from High Street for business owners and employees. Satellite parking has been discussed before, McKenzie says, but a good site has never been identified.
A few business owners said their out-of-town customers could use better signage to find the garages, and more than one took issue with overzealous enforcement. Some dissatisfaction might be solved by better marketing. The MPA offers a lot of programs for customers, merchants, and employees, but not everyone knows about them. One downtown merchant suggested in May that he’d like a way for customers to pay meters from their phones, be notified before expiration, and renew remotely. In fact, the MPA implemented the Parkmobile app in February to do just that. This isn’t a business owner who pays no attention, but someone who’s engaged and aware of business conditions and opportunities. He simply hadn’t heard about it.
But what downtown merchants most commonly ask for is free parking. Just a little. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, maybe, 4 to 10 p.m. Some people who don’t spend time downtown think it’s impossible to find parking, the business owners say, or that downtown is overrun with students. Free parking would encourage them to give downtown another try.
It’s not that simple, says McEwuen. If you offer free parking, downtown employees will use it, and it’ll be harder for customers to find parking than if they were paying. He also thinks exceptions to the rule don’t work out because they confuse people.
But there’s a more fundamental reason the MPA doesn’t offer free parking: It can’t.
A condition of the MPA’s bonds that finance the garages is that parking can’t be offered for free. With regard to Sundays, for example, the MPA’s line has long been, “We can’t say it’s free on Sundays, but we can tell you there’s no enforcement.”
It’s a constraint L.J. Giuliani would like to help the MPA get out from under. He’s the longtime owner of the nightclub 123 Pleasant Street and a board member of Mainstreet Morgantown and energetic downtown advocate.
“It’s difficult to have a business downtown. We’re taxed for this, we’re taxed for that. A little flexibility from the MPA would help. But we’re shackled because of this bonding that doesn’t let the parking authority offer free parking during Black Friday weekend, a parade, or whatever event,” Giuliani says.
He also argues for seasonal flexibility. Heavy enforcement when the students are in town. “But come down to Pleasant Street on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday now and look at the parking garage,” he said in late May. “We’re lucky if it’s one-quarter full. When students are away, that’s when the merchants downtown need all the help they can get from the city and the parking authority. We’ve got to be creative with how we get bodies down here, and the parking authority is potentially one doorway we can use to open up downtown.”
Giuliani thinks more flexibility would let the MPA be sensitive to town’s annual calendar and to the needs of the merchants. “How can the parking authority move past just managing parking and be an ambassador for downtown?” he asks.
A double-decker issue
Some of the frustration blamed on parking may have another level. “People need to understand, it isn’t a standalone problem, parking. Downtown has changed,” says County Commissioner Tom Bloom. He was on city council and the parking authority from 1987 to 2001, so he has a longer and broader perspective than just about anyone.
“There used to be four women’s shoe stores. Four different men’s clothing stores. Five women’s clothing stores. A department store. We’ve lost the stores that brought the people downtown as a family.” Boutiques and unique shops are important, he says, but stores that serve broader needs also have to be part of the mix. “If I had a business downtown, especially a restaurant, I’d be frustrated at losing that major clientele.”
What would improve the situation at its root, Bloom says, is housing downtown for professionals—people who have money to spend and who would raise the tenor of downtown. “And then offer stores that would serve those individuals.” It’s in line with a long-term vision some have called “SoWal” and Bloom calls “SoHigh” that, in contrast to the lively, student-centered bar scene nearer campus, would be more of a shopping district and restaurant row.
But meanwhile. Even being familiar with the complex dynamics of parking, Bloom makes the very same suggestion many others are making: Free parking. “Say, from 4 to 9 p.m., even just Thursday, Friday, Saturday.” Reminded of the parking authority’s experience that free parking gets abused, he says, “Well, that’s a problem that has to be dealt with. This would bring in the older crowd, the families, the group we’ve lost downtown.”
And in line with his feeling that parking is not a standalone problem, he proposes the merchant community give something, too. “The stores have to stay open. The thing at a mall is, they’re mandated to stay open—you’re not mandated downtown.” He notices a group of business owners downtown who want to shake things up—maybe some of the same ones who want more flexibility in the parking rules—and sees an opportunity. “I think Dana (McKenzie) is willing to work with people, but there has to be something more than just free parking.”
Pressed on the question, McKenzie backs up Bloom’s confidence that he’s flexible. “If we could come up with a plan to where we could truly keep the ones who are living and working downtown from parking on the streets, we could look at it. I’m not saying it’s out of the question—it’s just something we’ll have to keep working at.”
The “no free parking” bond constraint would still have to be addressed.
In January 2019, the MPA will pay off the Public Service Building parking garage at Spruce and Walnut streets. That will free up $360,000 a year. The authority has projects in mind for some of that freed-up revenue: Installing monitoring cameras in more locations, for public safety. Putting canopies over the parking garage entrances so drivers don’t have to reach for the ticket dispensers in the rain. Upgrading garage fire suppression systems.
And in 2021, the Wharf District garage will be paid off, freeing up another $400,000-plus a year and releasing the MPA from the “no free parking” constraint. Although McKenzie couldn’t say yet whether all of this means parking will become cheaper, he hints that there are discussions.
The downtown merchants’ suggestions should be part of those discussions. How about free parking for them and their employees inside the garages? How about free parking for the public Thursday through Saturday evenings?
But note this. As these two garages are just about paid off, there’s talk of a new garage in the southern part of downtown to accommodate activity that increased with the opening of the Monongalia County Justice Center in 2015. The Wharf District garage cost around $6 million in the early 2000s, McKenzie says; he estimates a 500-space garage downtown in today’s market, with land acquisition and modern pay and gate technology, might run closer to $15 million.
What would a $15 million bond mean for future parking rates? Could we avoid that expense with more support for alternative transportation? Should we at least stay away from bond strictures that tie the hands of the MPA? All of that needs to be part of the discussions, too.
Anyone can attend the MPA board’s monthly meetings at 3 p.m. on the second Wednesday of every month except July. And McKenzie invites anyone with a parking issue to call him at the MPA office. 300 Spruce Street, 304.284.7435, parkmpa.com
This article was amended on June 15 to reflect the changes made by the Morgantown Parking authority to include free parking during evening hours during the Summer of 2018 only.