ST. PETERSBURG — It now costs more than ever to park downtown.
The city has raised rates, expanded pay hours and nearly doubled the number of meters downtown as a way to put more money into its cash-strapped coffers.
The measures are expected to generate nearly $1-million in extra revenue next year.
But the efforts come as business owners are struggling to get customers in the door. BayWalk faces foreclosure, Muvico Theaters is considering pulling out of the area and downtown's office vacancy rate is at a nine-year high. Consumers can barely afford to shop or eat out, let alone pay parking fines, critics say.
Already this year, the city has earned $276,000 more in citations and parking meter fees over last year. Where the added revenue is coming from:
• There are now 1,450 parking meters in the greater downtown area, up from 850 meters in 2006.
•In October, parking fines jumped from $17.50 to $25. Pay late (after 15 days) and the fine is $40.
• Enforcement hours were expanded at dozens of time-limited parking spaces this year.
• Parking meter rates increased from 25 cents to 50 cents an hour.
The new revenue streams are good news for taxpayers, because general fund money has been needed to cover shortfalls in the parking department for the past two years. Next year, officials expect the department to be self-sufficient.
Business owners who worry their customers won't be able to find a convenient space also stand to benefit from the new rules.
Parking fees discourage downtown workers on long shifts from gobbling up all the street parking, leaving spaces free for potential customers, said Joe Kubicki, the city's transportation director. It also encourages turnover during lunch and dinner rushes.
"A couple of business owners have said that the fine is now punitive enough to change driver behavior and encourage people to follow the law by paying the meter or obeying the time limit," Kubicki said.
The new fees are reasonable, said Elaine Smalling, vice president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. "People expect when they are visiting a city that they are going to have to pay for parking," she said.
But not everyone is happy.
A small, but growing group of critics believes the fines are too high and have suggested that the city suspend parking fines, at least until the economy improves.
"I've heard people say they won't come downtown because of the parking situation," said Jim Watters, owner of Bruce Watters Jewelers on Beach Drive.
City officials counter that free parking would create too much congestion and hurt the bottom line. They are counting on an estimated $4.5-million in parking fees and fines in 2009, up from $3.6-million this year.
"We charge for parking to manage parking availability," Kubicki said. "Free parking would be a mess."
In Tampa, Mayor Pam Iorio removed parking meters from streets in Ybor City earlier this year to improve business in the historic district. That cost Tampa's already overstrained parking department $200,000.
In St. Petersburg, people have long parked wherever they wanted in downtown because the threat of a fine was cheaper than some parking garages' fees.
Then, starting in 2007, a series of statewide property tax reform measures forced local governments to come up with new revenue streams.
Increasing St. Petersburg's parking fees, which were historically cheaper than Clearwater's and Tampa's, was in downtown's best interest, Kubicki said. "The goal is to be self-sufficient," he said.
He said the city has received few complaints.
One of those was from Seminole resident Jim Cherry.
Last month, Cherry rounded up nine of his relatives and friends, circled the waterfront until he found parking and gamely dropped $400 on barbecue and booze during his annual trek to the Ribfest at Vinoy Park.
When he returned to his car, an overtime parking ticket was waiting. "It just ruined the night," said Cherry, 50. The fine jumped to $40 when Cherry forgot to pay within 15 days. Fed up, he fired off an e-mail to City Hall. "While most cities would rejoice to have thousands of people spending money in their city, St. Pete hands out parking tickets," he wrote. "I will never step foot in your city again for an event."
Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.