Rome City commissioners voted 5-2 on Monday night to add a third free hour of parking on downtown streets and to rollback enforcement hours to 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
A second reading is scheduled for June 10 barring a called meeting, City Manager Sammy Rich said. He added that he’ll instruct city staff to enforce Monday’s vote effective immediately.
The votes: In favor were commissioners Craig McDaniel, who introduced the proposed and was seconded by Randy Quick (both yes votes) with other yes votes from Sundai Stevenson, Milton Slack and Mayor Bill Collins. No votes: Jamie Doss and Evie McNiece. Absent: Wendy Davis and Bill Irmscher.
The webcast of the City Commission meeting was down throughout the meeting. The video has since been added and can be viewed here.
You can view the speakers before the commission as well as the final vote (the 5-2 vote comes at the 1:22 minute mark of the meeting). Among those speaking against the 8 a.m.-8 p.m. change and May 20 enforcement were Jay Shell, Eric McJunkin, Matt Harper, William Hardin, Jessica Minton and Tiffany Ruble; speaking in favor, Bob Blumberg and Mark Cochran.
THE CAUCUS REPORT:
For more than an hour, the caucus before Monday’s Rome City Commission swirled around the downtown parking controversy. It started with a detailed presentation from Parking Services Manager Becky Smyth, outlining changes since a downtown parking plan was proposed exactly a year ago. The latest phase — including a license plate reader and 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. enforcement of the two-hour street parking limit — premiered Monday. Kind of. More on that in a minute.
The meeting’s tone changed quickly with mixed comments from city commissioners and then quick impact statements — and we stressed impact and statements — from downtown business owners on how the community’s reaction to the parking plan has them scared. Repeated customer comments about boycotting or just not shopping and dining downtown has merchants scared.
Their comments and others received via email, texts and phone calls were enough to convince City Commissioner Craig McDaniel to first suggest scraping the current plan in favor of three free hours of downtown parking and rolling back enforcement to 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. After one of the last business owners spoke — a very passionate Joan Brady from Crawdaddy’s about how her restaurant could teeter from the negative customer feedback and perceptions about downtown parking — McDaniel made his suggestion into a motion to be heard in the City Commission meeting to follow.
The 5 p.m. meeting began at 5:15 p.m. and immediately started with the update from Smyth. She charted parking lot cleanups, improved parking deck light, information kiosk installments and the planned launch of the license plate reader system set for Monday. As it turns out, it could be two additional weeks before that system is operating as planned. Existing data has been added to the LRP system and now cameras must be calibrated and other systems brought up to speed, Smyth says.
That doesn’t mean the parking crew isn’t writing tickets; Smyth says parking regulations are being enforced. However, it will be a few days before the LPR system is field ready.
As for the extended parking enforcement — stretching from 6 until 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Smyth said it was a “good plan” and that the two-hour limit was to encourage turnover of prime spots for multiple customers to use.
McDaniel praised the parking staff for improvements, especially the city’s at-times dank decks. But he then said Rome has become a destination for many and that the new restrictions and two-hour limit are not helping downtown businesses. That’s when he suggested consideration of the three-hour/rollback plan. He cited multiple comments from people about faults with downtown parking and added, “I don’t think the Downtown Development Authority represents all the merchants.”
“We have to be responsive to the people we serve,” says McDaniel. He reminded commissioners that the new East Bend development replacing the former Kmart site will open with up to 28 businesses and restaurant — all offering free parking.
Commissioner Randy Quick reminded the caucus group that two-hour parking has been in place on Broad Street since 1998. But he also said it was tough for someone to complete what he called a 90-minute business lunch.
Commissioner Evie McNiece questioned making any changes to a plan that hadn’t even been in effect for 24 hours. She said it is part of a phased approach to parking changes and the results should be known before it is scraped so quickly.
Commissioner Sundai Stevenson talked about her own repeated trips downtown each day and then coming back with her family at night — and having to weigh a two-hour window. She made one point very clear: “I don’t want to park in any deck.” The last thing the commission wants “is to hurt our downtown,” she added.
Commissioner Jamie Doss sided with McNiece, saying to make a change so quickly would be a mistake. Commissioner Milton Slack III added, “We need to give something a chance to grow.”
Elaine Abercrombie, representing Greene’s Jewelers on Broad Street, told of a loyal customer who shops almost daily, spending perhaps $5,000 a year at the business. The shopper usually returns downtown with her husband for lunch (almost daily at Harvest Moon), goes home and then they return for dinner almost every day. That customer told her, “I’m not going to pay a parking ticket.”
Downtown advocate and resident Harry Brock warned the commissioners about the impact of parking on downtown businesses. He compared the tax value of Ira Levy’s The Lofts at Third and Broad per square foot vs. the average expected from the nearly 20 acres comprising East Bend: Levy’s impact is 10 times that of East Bend, Brock said. He went on to remind the board of all the impact Levy has had in restoring Broad Street through various projects — a trend he is continuing.
Brock also said any concerns about a parking crunch involving the expanding number of people living downtown were misplaced. He cited parking lot counts he’s personally performed at 3, 4 5 and 6 a.m. Impact: Minimal at best, he says
Jay Shell, owner of Rome City Brewing Co. and a 10-year veteran of owning a downtown business, also is a member of the Downtown Development Authority. He told the caucus how there were plenty of options presented especially when the city seemed intent on parking kiosks and only an hour of free parking each day. Shell said once he heard the feedback from his customers and other downtown merchants, he voted to oppose the DDA parking recommendation, in part because there were no marketing specifications.
Matt Harper of Harper Home Design at 424 Broad St. identified himself as a new business owner downtown – and said he’s also scared of what a parking backlash could do, possibly ending his business. “You guys are behind the wheel of a crappy car,” Harper said, adding that the current plan is akin to “putting your pants on before your underwear.”
That’s when Joan Brady of Crawdaddy’s spoke up. She told of how they’ve tried to make their restaurant special and how she’s sunk her financial life into the business. “We’ve worked so hard,” she said fighting tears. She told of the continuing comments from customers about parking changes and a potential boycott. Brady added “I don’t know” if the restaurant could survive if that happens. “I don’t want to lose my business.”
Lisa Smith of Rabbit’s Nest of Rome agreed, saying the DDA was not representing the merchants especially in dealing with parking changes.
That’s when Mayor Bill Collins asked to suspend the comments as the commission still had to address some pre-meeting items with Rome City Schools. He told the business owners that the commission supports them and that the matter would be discussed in the 6:30 p.m. meeting upstairs.
We’re awaiting an outcome from that meeting.