City aldermen to discuss solutions to parking problem

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 30, 2006

Any downtown parking problem is more of a perception than a reality, the experts say, but perception or not the city of Natchez is ready to tackle its situation.

Aldermen will discuss in their Tuesday meeting ideas for tackling the perennial parking problem.

It&8217;s crucial to find at least partial solutions to tight parking downtown, given the opening of several new businesses, said some business owners.

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&8220;And since we&8217;re advertising the importance of shopping town, and as empty buildings fill up and we try to (create) a hipper downtown, it has to be addressed,&8221; said Mary Lees Wilson, owner of One of a Kind Gifts on Main Street.

The problem is one with which nearly all Mississippi&8217;s mid-sized and large cities struggle, said Bob Wilson, assistant director of the Mississippi Main Street Association.

Jim High, assistant director of Tupelo&8217;s Downtown Association, said that in many cases, tight parking is all in the head.

&8220;It&8217;s human nature to want to park where you can see the door you&8217;re going to be walking into,&8221; High said.

&8220;But people walk the equivalent of three city blocks to get into Wal-Mart, whereas if they go downtown, sometimes they can find a parking space right around the corner from where they&8217;re going.&8221;

Also, it&8217;s natural for tourists who aren&8217;t familiar with a town to park on its Main Street and walk where they need to go from there, he said.

One way to free up more parking spaces within seeing distance of those doorways is to get shop owners involved.

&8220;If business owners can remind their employees, when they give their paycheck, to park elsewhere and leave those (prime) spaces for customers, it can have an impact,&8221; Wilson said.

And since filling up such a space can cost them $17,000 to $20,000 a year in retail sales, business owners have a vested interest in getting that message across, Wilson said.

But there&8217;s no easy answer, it seems.

In Tupelo&8217;s case, business owners and the city all paid money into a fund to buy up vacant city blocks, demolish the buildings and build parking lots on those sites.

&8220;That was back in the 1970s, before the malls came, when people had no choice but to shop downtown,&8221; High said.

People can park in those four city-owned lots all day for free, and business owners encourage their employees to park in those lots.

As in Natchez&8217;s case, some employees still park in front of their businesses.

In Tupelo, parking enforcement officer marks the tires of offenders with chalk so those vehicles can easily be spotted and ticketed if they&8217;re in that spot after the two-hour limit.

Yet some even go to the trouble of leaving their desks and going outside to wipe the chalk off, or trading spaces with their fellow workers to avoid paying $5 per parking ticket.

&8220;I&8217;ve seen them do it,&8221; High said.

One solution that&8217;s been discussed is buying a handheld computer the enforcement officer can use to more easily track the tag numbers of vehicles in each of the spaces.

&8220;But the city would have to do that,&8221; High said.

Tammi Gardner, executive director of the Natchez Downtown Development Association, has submitted to aldermen a proposal they&8217;ve said they&8217;ll discuss in their Tuesday meeting.

The proposal is also being endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Historic Natchez Foundation.

Among their recommendations:

4Hiring a full-time tire marker to monitor employees and business owners parking in downtown&8217;s main business area.

Past efforts, including sending cards and letters to business owners asking for their help, have not worked, Gardner said.

Former Police Chief Willie Huff, NDDA and city officials agreed a few years ago to take two-hour limits off certain areas downtown to make non-timed parking available within one or two blocks of the main business arteries, she noted.

In addition, Gardner said the above organizations are asking that parking ticket fines be raised from $3 to $10 to serve as more of a deterrent.

As it now stands, the Natchez Police Department&8217;s purchasing officer has been given the part-time task of enforcing parking downtown.

But increased parking ticket fines would more than pay for two part-time officers to do the job, Gardner said.

Gardner noted that the city has already leased the parking lot behind Zion Chapel A.M.E. Church.

She has also talked with businessman Walter Davis about the possibility of leasing one of his downtown lots for parking.

And Gardner said she&8217;s also talked with Britton & Koontz First National Bank officials about leasing the spaces that bank has on the edge of the council chambers parking lot on Commerce Street.

Aldermen discussed the issue of parking in their March 7 meeting.

For his part, Alderman Theodore &8220;Bubber&8221; West mentioned hiring two part-time officers or one full-time officer to enforce the two-hour parking limit downtown.

He also mentioned the possibility of raising the ticket fine from $3 to $10.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis has said she hopes business owners will eventually pool their own money to build a parking facility.

But regardless, business owner Mary Lee Wilson remains optimistic that shoppers will be drawn downtown despite the parking situation.

&8220;Once they find out what we&8217;ve got downtown, they&8217;ll come here regardless,&8221; she said.