Vote postponed on Harrisburg free-parking plan

A planned vote on a resolution to bring back free evening parking in downtown Harrisburg was postponed Tuesday.

Harrisburg City Council was expected to take action, but officials want more time to review the proposed deal, under which the city, county and a downtown group would cover the cost of parking in the early evening.

As part of the capital city’s debt-recovery plan in late 2013, under which Harrisburg gave up control of its parking system, the cost to park on the streets in downtown Harrisburg jumped in early 2014 from $1.50 per hour to $3 per hour.

The parking deal with SP Municipal Services, the entity that runs the Park Harrisburg system, also expanded enforcement hours for meters, requiring drivers to pay until 7 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. Saturday hours also were added.

Harrisburg bars, restaurants and other businesses have long complained that the evening hours cut into their happy hour and dinner business. More people push back evening plans until after 7 p.m. or they skip downtown altogether in the evening and Saturdays to avoid paying the meters.

Under the proposed resolution, the city would enter into an agreement with Dauphin County and the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District to pick up the tab for the extra two hours for downtown meters. Last year, those two hours brought in about $270,000 for the parking system.

Officials believe offsetting that amount for the parking system will pay dividends for downtown foot traffic.

“We want to bring people back into the city,” said Todd Vander Woude, executive director of the Harrisburg DID. “This is something that a lot of businesses have been interested in.”

Under this new initiative, the city and county would each cover $110,000 and the Harrisburg DID would cover the remaining $50,000. The initiative would apply only to street meters in the Harrisburg DID’s boundaries, which runs from Chestnut to State streets.

The agreement would be for one year, but Vander Woude said he is hopeful the three entities will be able to continue covering the cost because the parking deal isn’t going away. It’s a 40-year deal.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse said the parking operators will get guaranteed revenue for those two hours and businesses could see a surge of activity in the evening. He also believes the parking revenue could go higher because an increase of visitors on the streets could fill up metered parking spaces during happy hour, which could send other drivers into parking garages.

But City Councilman Ben Allatt said cutting hourly rates, rather than subsidizing a two-hour block, would be more effective in driving people downtown. Lower overall rates could still increase parking revenue for the system, he said.

However, he said if the new agreement can reverse the downturn in business between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., it is worth it.

“My concern is that no matter what efforts we take as a legislative body, the long-term impact of the perception of parking in downtown Harrisburg has already been determined in the court of public opinion,” he said.

Over the last few years, officials have tried other initiatives to spur more downtown activity, including $2 per hour happy hour rates and 15-minute free parking areas for quick trips.

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