The experts say it’s time for for a hard review of the reduced-rate parking price structure near popular attractions in downtown Fort Myers.
A consulting firm told the Fort Myers City Council what a typical visitor on a weekend night might consider obvious: There aren’t enough parking spaces available in the downtown business and entertainment district, and the spaces don’t turn over quickly enough.
Ongoing construction has made finding street parking more difficult on a busy day or night downtown.
The answer could include imposing fees on the current two-hours-free Zip Zone spots downtown. While they’re at it, the consultants want to increase the meter fee downtown.
Walker Consulting Inc., a Tampa-base municipal consulting group, is recommending that Fort Myers eliminate the free Zip Zone Parking, institute a charge of $1.50 per hour for those premium spots, and raise the 50 cents per hour two-hour spots downtown to 75 cents per hour.
Free Zip Zone spaces fill up quickly every morning, especially in the area of the county courthouse. In pre-pandemic times, attorneys and litigants appearing at the courthouse for an early morning date with a judge would capture the freebies before most downtown merchants were open.
Parking in Fort Myers has been a lot cheaper than in other cities.
Parking rates in other destination cities include $4 in the city of Miami Beach, $3.75 in St. Pete Beach, $3.50 in Clearwater, $3.25 in Miami, $2.50 in St. Augustine and $1 per hour in St. Petersburg.
Street parking in Tampa is about $2.50 per hour, but an ordinance authorizes rates as high as $10 per hour.
Fort Myers is perched at the low end of the parking fee scale.
Even so, the experts warn about going to far with fee hikes.
“You have the ability to grow, but not too outrageous,” said Tom Szubka a senior consultant at Walker Consulting.
The consultants say charging for the yellow-signed Zip Zone parking could prove significant in creating new revenue for parking.
Development in the downtown area, near the Caloosahatchee Waterway, has limited parking spots available.
“The Luminary Hotel site took away 276 spaces compared to what we observed in 2018, but we understood that the city only received the benefit of about 100 (new) spaces so there is still a shortfall total of about 673 spaces,” said Jim Corbett, director of studies for Walker Consulting.
More shortages may lie ahead.
Potential projects downtown, in spots ranging from Edwards Avenue to the current U.S. Post Office site, could trim another 673 parking spots from those now available.
Replacing those spaces with a garage, the consultants say, could cost $17 million to finance and require annual bond payments of more than $1 million.
Price changes as recommended by consultants would increase the city’s annual net revenue from parking to about $940,000.
Electronic metering, with fees paid at a kiosk or via a smartphone app, has become a new standard.
Fort Myers meters still require inserting quarters in an era when electronic payments are increasingly becoming the norm for just about everything.
Walker Consulting recommends ripping out the existing parking meters and replacing them with kiosks or a link to a phone app. The phone would be tied into a database that keeps license plate numbers on file and can link to specific cars in specific locations.
The town of Fort Myers Beach uses a parking app developed by Passport Labs Inc. of Charlotte, North Carolina, to control 300 parking spaces.
Using Passport or a similar system would require 65 to 77 units, which would carry fees to the city of about $70 per space depending on the bids made by potential vendors if the city goes ahead with the plan.
Mayor Kevin Anderson said he worried that charging more could lead to people deciding not to visit downtown.
“If we are going to raise the rates we definitely need technology,” Anderson said. “However, what concerns me if we raise the rates is the impact it will have on people visiting downtown and on the downtown businesses.”
But turning over parking spots can be seen as good for business.
“If we have to walk more than three to four blocks, we may be out of gas or uncomfortable as we walk toward our destination,” said consultant Corbett. “We may choose not to go to those destinations if it is too far to walk.”
City Councilman Liston Bochette suggested helping people find the good spots that remain by using technology he has seen elsewhere to post public information about where spots are available.
“Many times, cities will have advisories around the city that lots have spaces open so you don’t have to spend time driving around,” he said.
Councilman Fred Burson said that if the technology exists to allow a reduced rate for city residents in downtown it should be used
“If you’re going to read the tags, why not read the address, and they should get a different rate than people outside the city,” Burson said. “We don’t want to ideally charge residents of the city of Fort Myers the same as somebody who is just passing through.”