The Fort Smith Board of Directors has approved halting the collection of parking meter charges in downtown Fort Smith until March 31. The city traditionally waives such collections through the holidays from around Thanksgiving until the first of the year.
This year’s resolution was to waive the fees for parking from Nov. 24 to Jan. 5. At the board’s recent regular meeting, Vice Mayor and Director Jarred Rego moved to amend the concluding date from Jan. 5 to March 31 because he thinks it would be interesting to have “data covering a non-holiday period to see how traffic responds to shopping downtown.”
The annual resolution is done to make the downtown area more attractive to shop and eat during the holiday season. It also encourages the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce’s “Shop Local” campaign. Beginning in 2016, the board has approved waiving parking fees during the annual holiday period. While it loses the city approximately $5,000 a year in meter revenue, it generates positive feedback in the community with a modest loss of approximately $5,000 in meter revenue each year, Andrew Richards, director of finance, said in a memo regarding the resolution.
While several of the board members supported the idea, Director Kevin Settle raised concerns.
“What I hear from downtown business owners is that if you get rid of the paid parking, you are going to have people who live down there parking in front of their businesses and they will not drive any new business toward them. They don’t mind Christmastime,” Settle said. “I get Christmastime, but if you start doing that you are going to affect business after business that are struggling downtown.”
The idea of marking meters is to create a turnover for retailers in the local area, said Director Lavon Morton. If the parking is free, there could be a problem of one car occupying a parking space all day. Director Christina Catsavis supported the amended end date, saying she would like to see what information the added time could bring to discussions on how parking downtown can be changed to be the most beneficial to everyone. She said she understands that the city and 64.6 Downtown are working together to come up with a strategic parking plan.
Talicia Richardson, executive director of 64.6 Downtown, said they have reviewed various options and those are scheduled to be presented to the board of directors on Nov. 28. She said the biggest thing to be covered is an update to the city’s parking meters.
“We as a community have technology that is not current. We hope to see the city move to a process where meters can be paid for differently,” she said.
Many visitors to the downtown area or to Fort Smith in general do not carry change with them. Meters that are paid for by credit or debit cards or an app on cellular phones would make the process of paying for a meter more convenient, she said. She said there are definitely places downtown where it makes sense to have parking meters including in front of the city offices, state building and chamber of commerce building. She said other blocks such as 300 Garrison, which has 100% occupancy in its business, might also prefer meters because it encourages vehicle turnover and allows for more customers.
“There is not one idea. We want to look at there being different options for parking downtown,” Richardson said. “We are not wanting to take out all the parking meters.”
She said 64.6 Downtown brought up a parking plan when the city was developing Propelling Downtown Forward in 2017 and a parking plan is part of that strategic plan.
At the board meeting, Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said a full discussion of all options including meters, zoned parking, and the parking garage would be brought to the board “sometime soon.” The discussion will include how people are living compared to the types of parking available and free parking versus paid parking.
The amended parking meter resolution passed with a vote of six to one with Settle voting against the extension.