How many major cities offer free parking in their CBD? Not many, if any, I think.
Yet, several retailers located in downtown Tauranga has raised a petition with 3600 signatures for free parking in the CBD. It is their opinion that free parking would encourage more people to shop in the CBD as opposed to the malls and suburban shopping centres where parking is free.
But here in Tauranga, we have a problem. We have 2 parking buildings in Spring Street and Elizabeth Street that need to be paid for.
I know, I know. It really irked me to discover that the parking revenue from the CBD had been used for many years to pay for walkways and other "street-related" expenses. I believe that if the money had been used as it was intended, we would have paid off, if not close to paying off the debt of those 2 buildings by now.
The good news is, the current Council has stopped the wrong use of parking revenue and it is now going where it was always supposed to go.
Back to free parking in the CBD. Surely there is some merit in this. Past elected members and Council staff had approved of the development of satellite shopping areas like Fraser Cove, Bethlehem and Fashion Island in Papamoa. I can appreciate the good intentions at that time of diverting congestion away from the CBD. Unfortunately, we now see retailers in downtown Tauranga struggling to compete for shoppers who prefer to go where parking is free.
I actually asked my "shopper" at home if free parking would encourage her to shop downtown. She said only if she could not find the same retailer in the shopping centres closer to home. She wasn't interested in the traffic (and traffic lights) in the CBD. She also thought the satellite shopping areas were more convenient in that the parking is right out front as compared to the CBD where one would likely park a further distance away.
I thought that was a funny because she goes for long brisk walks several times a week. So she can't be too lazy to walk a short distance. Maybe she was referring to what Brian Kelly called the "If I can't find a park outside the shop, I'm not going in" disease.
I don't really fit into the profile of a shopper, do I? The only shopping I do is at Bunnings and Mitre10 Mega. They are both not downtown and anyway, they usually have what I'm looking for. And if they didn't, I'll just go to wherever I need to go to get what I need, free parking or otherwise.
But, is that how shoppers generally feel? If so, does that mean free parking is not the determining factor in reviving retail business and the vibrancy of downtown Tauranga?
What are the implications of free parking?
The parking bays on the streets closest to the commercial areas in the CBD are usually not vacant during trading hours. So free parking would only make this situation worse. What would that mean to the people who go downtown for business purposes? Does free parking in the CBD then favour shopping over commerce?
So we now have paid parking during the work week, free parking in the buildings on Saturdays and free parking on the streets on Sundays. In a way, that arrangement suits all purposes. Plus the ratepayers who don't go to the CBD shouldn't have to contribute to free parking for those who do.
This week a resolution was put forward to us on this matter. Let us first be realistic. The free parking option could never happen for more valid reasons than one. And the vote was indeed not for free parking. It was for keeping or abolishing time limits on parking in the CBD. I voted against it not because I thought the time limits should stay. I voted against it because the time limits were lifted at the cost of more expensive parking charges. The media unfortunately did not clearly explain this.
If there is one culture in Council that needs to change, we need to give back to the city or make it a better place without making the ratepayer pay more than they already have. I am not sure what further effect this increase in parking cost will have on CBD retailers but I hope it is not negative and does not impede investments into our city.