ST. PETERSBURG — Bella Brava owner Robert Sanderson predicts it will be the end of Central Avenue.
Rhonda Shear threatened to relocate her lingerie shop, Maison Rouge.
And at Bayfront Tower, Hal Freedman fears he'll have to start warning his dinner party guests to carry pocketfuls of spare change.
The city's plan to expand parking meter enforcement hours near Central Avenue has sparked fury in residents and business owners alike. The measure would require visitors who currently don't have to pay after 6 p.m. or on weekends to keep plugging in quarters until 10 p.m.
The proposal is just the latest in a series of expansions to downtown parking enforcement in recent years. However, this newest tweak has prompted an unprecedented outcry, especially from business owners who are already struggling to keep downtown booming amid layoffs, pay cuts and national economic gloom.
The message to City Hall? Back off.
City officials have responded to the complaints deftly, setting up last-minute coffee meetings and conference calls to persuade critics that the expanded parking plan will benefit everyone — not just city coffers.
The proposal will eliminate a confusing array of meter enforcement times and standardize when meters are policed throughout downtown, said Joe Kubicki, the city's transportation director.
Now, some meters are policed from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., others until 8 p.m. and a handful demand your change until 11 p.m. Hours vary from street to street.
Under the new plan, all meters would be policed from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. seven days a week.
While the measure will reduce enforcement hours on a handful of streets, the 500 meters near the rows of restaurants, shops and bars on Central Avenue will see dramatically increased enforcement times.
That's a good thing, Kubicki said.
"I'm not sure the businesses along Central Avenue understand that through the use of parking enforcement, they can help ensure turnover at their businesses, and the result is more people are using their businesses," Kubicki said.
But shop and restaurant owners are suspicious of the city's true intentions.
"This is not a town big enough to hold new crowds every few hours," said Joe Moledo, manager of the Table restaurant and lounge on Central. "All they are doing is scaring customers away. If you are drinking and having a good time, why would people go out and feed the meters every few hours?"
Sanderson of Bella Brava believes the city simply wants to collect more parking fines.
St. Petersburg parking attendants are notorious for catching offenders just as the meter's clock runs out. On some streets, linger too long over a plate of spaghetti, and a ticket is a near guarantee.
"In this environment, a $25 ticket is onerous," Sanderson said. Customers "will never come back. They'll go to a restaurant with a parking lot."
City Council member Karl Nurse, who represents downtown, said he will ask Kubicki to delay plans to implement the parking changes, which were scheduled to go into effect at the end of the month.
"If you upset the applecart, some of these businesses won't survive," Nurse said.
"Why is it going to stop people from going to Central Avenue if it has not stopped people on Beach Drive?" Baker said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.