Ray Duckler: If you charge them, will they come? Perhaps not

  • Downtown Concord is seen from a roof top on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor columnist
Thursday, June 30, 2016

Nothing in this column will surprise Matt Walsh, Concord’s director of redevelopment, downtown services and special projects.

Or other city officials, for that matter. They knew no one was going to be thrilled about paying a dollar more per hour to park downtown, which has been mentioned as a solution to the city’s in-the-red parking program.

I went downtown to ask shoppers what they thought. I asked merchants the same thing.

Eyes rolled. Sometimes they popped out, resembling a character from a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Heads shook back and forth. Mouths moved into the classic oval of astonishment position. People mentioned all the fuss made about Concord’s recent face-lift, how it should lure traffic, pump dollars into the economy and make Concord business friendly.

Even the Steeplegate Mall, long a barren wasteland more suitable for cacti and tumbleweeds than shoppers, was seen as a legitimate substitute for the stores on the main drag.

“It seems counterintuitive,” said Josh Lienhart of Manchester, who works in town 30 to 40 hours per week. “To do all this work to encourage people to come down here, and then price them out of parking? And more than double it?”

That theme rolled down Main Street like quarters in a kiosk. Upping the current meter rate from 75 cents an hour for on-street and lot parking, and 50 cents in city garages was inevitable, I was told.

But a dollar-an-hour increase for prime real estate parking seemed a bit steep, as did moving fines from $10 to $25 for overstaying your welcome. Also troubling: the extra two hours each weekday that would fall under meter jurisdiction, not to mention 11 hours on Saturday, extending to 8 p.m.

That’s right. If passed by the Concord city council, parking will cost you during a chunk of Saturday night. All of this means you’ll be paying more money more often to enjoy those expanded sidewalks, red benches and new crosswalks.

“That’s crazy,” said John Morton, a health and lifestyle coach from Loudon. “I would stop parking on the Main Street. There’s a point where something doesn’t make sense anymore. There’s a point where you have overpriced it.”

Don’t panic. A lot of digesting and dialogue must occur before this goes through, but it’s impossible not to wonder what sort of effect the change would have on consumers.

And retailers.

Laura Miller, who owns Marketplace New England, has long been a face and voice for businesses downtown. She saw a 25-cent increase near her shop, to a buck an hour, as a normal part of economic evolution.

Not this, though. Not a rise to $1.75 an hour.

“It’s important to encourage people to come here,” Miller said. “If the purpose (of the renovations) was to bring people down here, you can’t discourage it. And going to Saturday will severely hurt business. Normally that’s the day people can browse, can have lunch, spend a whole day here.”

Emily Galvin, manager at the Viking House, noted the 150 percent increase in parking tickets, saying, “People start to look at their watches now. They feel the pressure when the fine is $10, so if the threat is $25, they’ll feel even more panicked.”

Galvin agrees with the city’s goal, which is to drive shoppers into the garages, where oftentimes the cheaper spaces remain unused throughout the day.

“There are seniors who need to park on Main Street,” Galvin said. “But we have three garages within a block of us and people don’t want to carry packages, they feel the need to be close. Everywhere else in the world people have to carry things, but people have told me they won’t come in if they can’t find a spot out front.”

Concord wants you to park in those garages. Don’t be intimidated. It’s easy, and there’s no time limit. Enjoy your new-and-improved downtown. Stick around.

Walsh, the city’s downtown director, said the goals of the plan are two-fold: get the parking system out of the red, and keep the shoppers coming. But he knew achieving that balance wasn’t going to be easy.

“There’s going to be a period of reaction where people are not going to be happy, and you’re going to have to let that ride out for awhile,” Walsh told fellow city officials Monday night.

Tressa Kosowicz, who with her father owns Little River Oriental Rugs, totally sided with the city’s potential vision, which surfaced after recommendations from consultant firms.

“Parking should be a self-sustaining program rather than relying on tax money,” said Kosowicz, who showed me a plastic business card holder near the front door, filled with quarters in case her customers need them.

“I’m not going to lose a sale over 50 cents,” she said.

But others might lose sales if the parking rate goes too high, too fast. Morton, the health and lifestyle coach from Loudon, said this could be the best promotion the Steeplegate Mall has ever had.

“You can park there for free,” he said.

While, soon, it could cost $1.75 an hour on Main Street. Same as in Portsmouth. I mentioned that while talking to Miller and Galvin.

“We’re not in Portsmouth,” they said in unison.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)