Will an offer of free two-hour parking on the streets of Meadville’s downtown business district entice customers to do their holiday parking downtown — or will it simply encourage employees of businesses in the aforementioned district to park for free in spots intended for customer use?

That was the question raised by members of Meadville City Council in response to a recent request received from Christa Batten, executive director of Meadville-Western Crawford County Chamber of Commerce.

In a letter discussed during council’s recent monthly study session, Batten asked that the city “suspend the use, fines and costs associated with the parking meters in the downtown area to help support the local businesses during the holiday season.”

Batten even offered her organization’s assistance in accomplishing the task. “I understand that bagging meters in the downtown shopping area has been the tradition and we will be glad to place the bags on the meters, providing the city supplies the bags and locations of meters to be covered,” she wrote. “We all want to do our part to support buying local and supporting the downtown businesses,” she added. “We also encourage that residents and fellow business owners of Meadville consider purchasing items in Meadville before heading out of town.”

However, while he’s all in favor of encouraging downtown shopping, Mayor Christopher Soff isn’t sure that bagging meters is the way to go.

“It appears that the downtown businesses are not in favor of this,” he said, noting that the program “would undo the efforts of (council’s) parking committee and the Downtown Meadville Business Alliance” to discourage employee parking in prime downtown spaces.

In mid-October, an alliance representative outlined a plan his group believes may offer a solution to the problem of employees filling prime customer parking spaces as well as requested an opportunity for the four-month-old organization to meet with council to share its ideas about the city’s central business area. Those ideas, he added, include the creation of a “customer-only parking” zone in the central business district, surrounded by plenty of 12-hour metered spaces, especially in the city’s parking garages and surface parking lots.

At that time, council members Nancy Mangilo-Bittner and Bob Langley, who comprise council’s parking subcommittee, expressed a preference for moving ahead with formalizing their own recommendation to council, which includes changing the hours during which meters must be fed from the current 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Deja vu all over again....

Free two-hour parking in downtown Meadville during the holiday season is a tradition dating back “so long nobody’s exactly sure when it started,” according to a Tribune story published in November 2007. At that point, the tradition included free two-hour parking in all metered spaces — both on-street and in lots — from the day after Thanksgiving until Jan. 2. Also traditionally, the city has not initiated the free-parking program but rather has implemented the program in response to a request from the Chamber.

In 2008, the program was scaled back. While the starting day continued to be Black Friday — the first shopping day after Thanksgiving — the revised program ended on the first Monday after Christmas.

Also beginning in 2008, the only meters that did not have to be fed were those covered with colorful red holiday bags. Bagged meters were located along specific stretches of streets and in specified garages and street-level lots; the distribution was so complicated that the city’s meter-enforcement officers carried lists detailing the location of every meter qualifying for the free parking program.

Following receipt of the 2013 request, council members expressed concerns that the program would undo the city’s recent efforts to encourage employees and owners of downtown businesses to rent reserved spaces in city lots instead of occupying metered spaces in more convenient locations. However, a desire to comply with the wishes of the owners of the businesses who would benefit from the program was also expressed by Council member LeRoy Stearns.

“Council is not now inclined toward free downtown parking, but we could be convinced if downtown businesses are in favor of the program,” Soff said, summarizing the discussion. Soff also noted that when council solicited comments about the program in previous years, “ the only thing we heard was a plea from businesses to not do it.”

Owners of businesses located in the core of the downtown business district may submit comments on the program to members of councils’ parking committee at nmb@cityofmeadville.org and blangley@cityofmeadville.org or to city staff at awalker@cityofmeadville.org.

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mspicer@meadvilletribune.com.

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