By Charlotte Helston
A Vernon businesswoman worries increased parking rates will result in fewer shoppers downtown, and a circulating petition suggests she's not alone.
Dianne Rowland, owner of Betty Lou Boutique on 30th Avenue, has watched numerous shopfronts turn dark as owners pack up and leave for financially greener pastures. She believes the City of Vernon's latest parking increase—doubling to one dollar per hour from 50 cents—could be the tipping point for some customers. A petition against the increase is being circulated by downtown businesses and will be presented to council in the near future.
"People tell me they won't come anymore," Rowland says. "Already they're ticked about what they have to pay."
She says customers often don't get what they pay for either. In the winter, curbsides are so inundated with snow that Rowland has watched drivers climb over slippery mounds of snow just to get to the meter. She says it's especially dangerous for seniors who want to park as close to their destination as possible, and often enough to keep them from coming. Better maintenance of curbsides is high on her wish list from the city, as is cheaper parking.
The increase also came as a surprise to the Downtown Vernon Association, which says members didn't know the jump would be so big, or that it would affect the side streets.
"We sit on the Parking Advisory Committee, and we supported some increase on Main Street," Louise Delaney, executive director, says. "But they did a blanket increase over the whole area. We were quite shocked.... We understand the anxiousness of businesses."
She says there hasn't been an increase in some years, and that a more moderate one would have been better received. But she doesn't think spending extra coin on parking will deter shoppers from spending in the downtown.
"People will still come because they have their favourite stores," she says. "The parking rate will annoy them, not deter them."
Another downtown business says it's not just about expensive parking, it's about finding parking at all. Staff at Discovery Shoe Repair on 30th Avenue say it's tough to find parking on Main Street, whether you're customer or staff.
Leonard Legare says the cars lining 30th Avenue often belong to store employees due to a lack of staff parking. And when staff park blocks away to keep the storefront open, employees like Michelle Hocken have to take cash out of their paychecks to do so.
"I have to pay just to come to work," Hocken says, adding she can't take the bus or ride her bike because she has to drop her kids off at school first. She says she's not looking forward to seeing more of her hard earned cash disappearing down a parking meter with the upcoming increases.
Rowland, who has been in her 30th Avenue location for nearly two years, says parking can make or break the downtown.
"Downtown is becoming a ghost town," Rowland says. "It's sad and it's scaring me."
She says as more businesses leave, there will be less diversity drawing people to the downtown in the first place. She believes better parking is central to attracting customers.
"Surely there can be free parking somewhere, at least on Saturdays," she says.
And at least one city councillor is looking into that possibility. Coun. Juliette Cunningham is making sure city staff explore options for free parking at the Bennett parking lot on 29th Avenue with a motion passed Tuesday directing them to draw up a report.
"It's really not that big an increase," Cunningham says of the raised parking fees. "But perception often becomes reality... I'm concerned we have a lot of small businesses hurting downtown."
She would also like to see the city's existing free weekend parking lots better promoted, including the Coldstream Hotel lot and the parkade.
Rowland says the councillor's ideas are a step in the right direction.
"Anything will help," she says.
To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at email@example.com, or call (250)309-5230