Business owners and employees of Acworth's Main Street stores are upset with City of Acworth's recent decision to enact a three hour parking limit on all spaces in the immediate vicinity, including spaces on Senator Russell Avenue.
Violators of the three hour parking limit are fined $25 for the first offense, with fines possibly increasing to $50 with more infractions. Erica Stookey, who works at Divas & Dames Boutique, was fined for a parking violation of Feb. 9.
“I normally park at 2,” she said, “and I'm usually out of here right at 5, so I don't get a ticket. On that day I had gotten to work about 18 to 20 minutes early, so I was worried.” Her fears were justified when she saw the ticket on her car.
“At first, I agreed with the new rules, especially for busy times like on the weekends,” she said. “But on weekday afternoons when there are 50 open spots it's crazy.”
Rick Limpert, of The Ivy Shop, remembers earlier years when his store and all the others had their own private parking along Senator Russell Avenue. “Nowadays, all we have is a 20 minute loading zone I can't get into most of the time,” he said.
Although Limpert was appreciative of City Hall's efforts to give Main Street and Senator Russell Avenue a facelift, he felt that his concerns were not being addressed by the city. “They said they won't do anything about it for a year,” he said.
As a flower delivery business, Limpert and his employees must constantly come and go. One day, he had to make a delivery and was gone for an hour. When he returned, he parked in the same place he had been in. The passing police officer was not aware of his departure and was in the process of writing a ticket when Limpert came out and explained the situation to him.
Even though their individual inconveniences with the new parking rules are frustrating to business owners and employees, the majority of them are more concerned about the impact of the fines on visitors to Main Street.
“I can understand why they're doing it, but there has to be a compromise,” said Jerry Deavers, owner of the House of Frames. “If you're not careful, you'll run the customers off.” Danielle Hildebrand, who owns of Pearls Spa and Apothecary Boutique, has to pay the parking ticket of a customer who paid $400 for a 4 hour spa treatment.
“We're not looking for a fight,” she said, “we're looking for a solution.” Hildebrand said she sent e-mails to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen hoping to start a dialogue, but feels that the city hasn't given them any options. “There's too much to do down here in only three hours,” she said, and suggested the city extend the time limit to four hours.
Brian Bulthuis, Acworth City Manager, said he believes that the parking regulations are a necessary step to encourage more visitors to the area. “We've invested millions of dollars in downtown, and now the issue has become, 'Where do the business owners park?'” he said, “You never want to have a problem, but this is a good problem to have.”
Before the parking restrictions went into effect, Bulthuis said he and other aldermen received many complaints from visitors to the city who could not find anywhere to park downtown. These complaints, along with the arrival of the medical center and its employees to downtown, necessitated the restrictions.
“If we open up the parking, the business owners who get here at 9 or 10 are going to find all the spots have been taken by the doctors and their employees who get here at 7:30 or 8,” Bulthuis said. The Mayor and Board of Aldermen looked into alternatives such as parking meters, but felt the public would not be supportive of paid parking replacing the current system.
Although Bulthuis admitted that the Pearls Spa customers getting ticketed was the first instance of a customer being fined he had been made aware of, he said that nearby cities like Marietta only have a two hour parking limit, and felt that the three hour limit was ample time to allow visitors to explore downtown Acworth.
Bulthuis has urged business owners and employees to vote to approve the new SPLOST in March, which will appropriate $750,000 for additional parking. In the meantime, Bulthuis recommended that people who need to stay more than three hours downtown should park at City Hall or the Library, where there are no restrictions.
Some business owners and employees have questioned why parking is restricted during weekdays but not during the busy Friday nights and weekend nights. “In the evenings, our thought was, 'the business owners and employees are already where they're going to be,' and we didn't want to restrict parking during prime times,” Bulthuis said. “We want to encourage people to stay longer during those times.”
Kristi Rankin of Adriana's wondered why the city could not give each business a reserved parking spot like they had before Senator Russell Avenue was redone. “They say it's illegal,” she said. “But there are public parking decks with reserved spots.” Rankin noted that some of her customers couldn't browse her store thoroughly because they were checking their watches, presumably to make sure they didn't get ticketed. Kristi's mother Sheila echoed these concerns, confessing she would “walk two miles to make sure my customers have a place to park,” and noting that the restrictions hurt owners, employees and customers alike.
“We want Senator Russell Avenue to be a second Main Street,” said Bulthuis, “It needed to be redone.” Bulthuis said the city purchased the property behind the stores on Main Street from the business owners at fair market value, and is not legally allowed to designate private parking areas in what is designed to be a public parking lot.
The growing disagreement between Main Street and City Hall came to a head at the last Mayor and Board of Aldermen meeting on Feb. 17, when several business owners brought their concerns to the public comment section. Heated words were exchanged between the business owners and the Aldermen, and Mayor Allegood was forced to conclude the session and adjourn the meeting before things got nastier.
“We're trying to find a balance,” Bulthuis said. “If you keep changing the rules, people are going to get confused.” Business owners accuse City Hall of being inflexible and condescending.
The conflict between Main Street and City Hall over three hour parking does not look likely to be solved any time soon. The best Acworth can hope for is a compromise both sides can live with. Jerry Deavers said it best.
“You've got to keep everyone happy, and that's not easy to do.”