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Officials strive for parking balance in midstate urban areas

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Federal Taphouse employee Alex Sontag pays for parking at a new multispace, on-street pay station in Harrisburg’s central business district.
Federal Taphouse employee Alex Sontag pays for parking at a new multispace, on-street pay station in Harrisburg’s central business district. - (Photo / )

When it comes to maintaining a thriving downtown, officials and business owners know, parking is a huge variable.

Easy parking, enough parking and parking at a fair price. Some officials say it is getting harder and harder to accomplish all three goals.

In urban areas such as Harrisburg and Carlisle, officials are striving to achieve the former values at the expense of the latter. That means costs are on the rise.

"You need to strike a balance between the parking being available, simple to use, but not so expensive that people don't want to shop downtown," said Sean Shultz, a Carlisle councilman.

Carlisle recently tripled its fine for an expired meter, taking it to $15. In addition, a new digital payment option available at meters next year will make it easier to pay for parking. Vehicle owners will be able to add time to meters remotely via smartphones, Shultz said.

The cost to park remains the same: 50 cents per hour for the gray parking meters downtown and 25 cents per hour to park at gold meters in residential areas. The first 15 minutes are free at all meters.

The fines were hiked because officials felt $5 was not enough of a deterrent to tardy parkers, Shultz explained. Every downtown study the borough has paid for over the past 20 years, he added, reached the same conclusion: Carlisle needs to move vehicles in and out faster.

"You don't want people camped out in those parking spaces all day long," he said. "You want those spaces in front of the stores to be available for people going in and out of the stores."

Promotional opportunities

In Harrisburg, SP+ Municipal Services is installing multispace, on-street pay stations in Harrisburg's central business district. The meters are enforced from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with a standard rate of $3 per hour, payable in 15-minute increments.

Streets with original meters remain at current rates — $1.50 per hour until 5 p.m. — and will be enforced according to the existing schedule until the new on-street meters are installed. Cash keys are not accepted at the new pay stations.

Harrisburg also plans a mobile app that will enable payment from afar. Mayor Eric Papenfuse said the convenience will help offset the additional parking costs. Most pay-by-phone parking apps include a service charge.

"I think it has great opportunities for businesses to promote themselves and specials and everything else," he said, adding the app opens up creative marketing possibilities. "I think it will make validating parking easier — free parking with a purchase, or free parking if you're coming down to see a play or a show — all through this mobile app."

Brad Jones, vice president of Harristown Enterprises Inc., is taking a wait-and-see approach. Harristown owns Strawberry Square and is responsible for several downtown revitalization projects in Harrisburg, including the Hilton Harrisburg.

"There's concern about businesses moving out of the city due to parking rates escalating," Jones said. "We've had some of those challenges before and we've overcome them."

Discounted rates

Jones agreed that having spaces tied up for hours at a time is not a good situation for businesses. He said the key is to strike the right balance. Like Carlisle, Harrisburg has special discounted rates set up for downtown employees to park in the garages.

Those state employees, and county employees in Carlisle, equate to a lot of business for many downtown establishments and shouldn't see large parking cost increases, officials say.

"The daily fee is about the same as parking at a meter, only you don't have to go out and constantly feed the meter," Shultz said. "That's part of that strategy to keep those meters turned over."

Carlisle business owners benefit in other ways from parking meter revenue, pointed out Pat Craig, who owns Pat Craig Studios at 30 W. Pomfret St.

"One of the important factors that everybody needs to remember is the parking meter funds pay for the Downtown Carlisle Association," she said. "The DCA exists simply for our benefit as merchants in this town ... and they are working very hard on our behalf."

The parking meter issue "is more of a perceived problem than it really is," Craig added.

"If you have a town where people really want to be there, you will find a place to park," she said. "You need to find a balance. But people also need to want to come there."

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