Parking board continues strategic planning effort

This fall was the 70th anniversary of the first parking meters in downtown Great Falls.

The longevity of the program is one of its strengths, Bill Mintsiveris said during the Parking Advisory Commission’s Thursday meeting as the group worked on its strategic plan.

The group started by reviewing what they discussed in September during a meeting that focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s parking program.

Parking board beginning strategic planning process

Mintsiveris, the PAC chair and downtown business owner, said the city’s history with meters gives locals a familiarity with them and how they operate.

The city installed parking meters in 1947 as part of a pilot and a 1949 public vote  approved keeping the meters.

At the time, the city established a two-hour parking time limit and set parking rates at 1 cent for 12 minutes; 2 cents for 24 minutes; 3 cents for 36 minutes; 4 cents for 48 minutes and 5 cents for an hour.

The meters were enforced between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. except Sundays and legal holidays, according to the 1947 ordinance.

Casey Jones, vice president of SP, and Greg Hoffman, regional manager for SP+, traveled to Great Falls again to facilitate the meeting and they’ll return for the next meeting sometime in January. Two PAC members, Katie Hanning and Lee Wiegand, were absent.

Newly appointed member Jeff Patterson asked for clarification on what the scope of the project was and Craig Raymond, city planning director, said that for now, it’s parking facilities, employees and programs that are owned and operated by the city.

Jones said the review and strategic plan is focused on things within the city’s control.

Among the weaknesses of the program that the PAC discussed in September and reviewed Thursday are a lack of public understanding of the program, awareness of the Passport Parking mobile app, signage/branding/marketing of the system, negative perceptions about meters, lack of revenue for deferred maintenance and inadequate staff resources.

Wayfinding project planned for downtown in effort to improve economic development, connectivity and tourism

Patterson said now that he’s paying closer attention to the inner workings of the parking program, he understands why some things work the way they do, but as a consumer, he said he doesn’t want to think about how the city parking system works when he has to plug a meter.

That’s in part due to the availability of parking spaces in the downtown, but as activity increases in the downtown, Jones said that’s when value of parking grows.

Joan Redeen, PAC member and director of the downtown Business Improvement District, said parking on the 300, 400 and 500 blocks of Central Avenue has higher value since the businesses there are drawing in more people and convenient parking is harder to come by.

Patterson said parking is a deterrent to business owners because it’s an added cost, though outside the downtown, parking related costs are often built into operational costs in other ways. Patterson said he thinks downtown should be a Great Falls investment and the parking program should not just be carried on the back of meters and garages

Since at least 2013, City Commissioners and the city manager have been adamant that no general fund support and the program is funded by meters, parking permits, tickets and fines. Parking fines previously went into the general fund since when the program was established in 1947, it was managed by the police department. In 2012, the city moved the fine monies to the parking fund, since the program is now managed by the planning department.

“Great Falls is in a situation where one customer can put us into a tailspin,” Raymond said, which is essentially what happened when NEW/Asurion left downtown. “We haven’t been able to budget for downturns.”

Mintsiveris asked if the city could do summer rates to capture more revenue from tourists. Jones and Hoffman said that yes, there are options for seasonal rates, rates based on demand or discounts for locals.

Another idea floated during the meeting was making it more expensive to park for extended periods of time in high traffic areas to prevent downtown employees from hogging those parking spots.

In Missoula, the city installed new meters last year that allow for graduated rates. The first two hours are $1 each, after that the price increases by 50 cents each hour and caps out at $4 for the eighth hour. Missoula also uses the same Passport Parking app that Great Falls uses. Missoula has a similar fee structure to Great Falls.

Helena has zones with different rates and time limits. Most of the central business core has free parking for one or two hours, but has steeper fines with $10 for meter or lot violations and $25 for overtime and other street violations.

Patterson said that the way he would talk to his IT clients is talk about what they’d like to do if they weren’t limited by money or other constraints and work solutions from those big ideas.

“Part of our job is to bring fresh and radical ideas,” Patterson said, and that he believes the new commission might be open to radical ideas.

Raymond said he would like the PAC to think that way in coming up with big ideas and proposals and then work with staff to find ways to make the finance side work, though all of their proposals generally need City Commission approval.

Raymond said staff has to think differently than PAC members because, “I have to follow [City Commission] direction, but you can dream…that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Many cities with successful downtowns use parking revenue above operational needs to fund streetscape, police or other community needs that improve the downtown, Raymond and Jones said. The parking industry has faced longtime constraints that are being removed, Jones said, as technology advances and better strategies are developed.

In the new year, the PAC will move to the next phase of the strategic planning process, which is coming to agreement on the program’s purpose, Jones said. They’ll also focus on performance metrics and indicators.

During Thursday’s meeting, the PAC discussed whether their two-year-old mission statement still fit the program.

Mintsiveris said that they have this mission on paper, but that it doesn’t fully explain what they’re tasked with or the financial constraints.

“The public doesn’t know what the situation is,” Mintsiveris said.

Kellie Pierce, a new PAC member and director of the Downtown Development Partnership, said she sees the tension between business challenges and customer issues with parking downtown.

“I think the perception is that it should be cheaper or free to park downtown,” Pierce said, but she has visited other communities where it’s more expensive to park and people there don’t bat an eye because they know that it takes.

Pierce and Mintsiveris mentioned the strong tourist traffic downtown, especially during the summer. Mintsiveris said he has customers from Edmonton, which he said was the last bastion of free parking in Canada.

But Edmonton, a city of about 1 million people in Alberta, has parking meters and the lowest hourly rate is five times the Great Falls rate.

The parking rate in Great Falls at all downtown meters is 50 cents per hour.

Edmonton has different rates for high, medium and low demand areas with meters, plus parking garages. The low demand rate is $2.50 per hour and the high demand rate is $3.50 per hour. Edmonton’s Saturday parking is a flat $1 per hour. Parking is generally free on Sundays and holidays.

The PAC began developing their guiding principles which so far include: nice but firm; customer centric; clean, safe and maintained.