TAMPA — Even on an ordinary week night, parking is a pain in downtown Tampa. And Tuesday was no ordinary week night.
As surrounding roads swelled with rush hour traffic, the Tampa Bay Lightning greeted 19,000 fans at Amalie Arena. A few miles away, nearly 3,000 ticket holders were descending on the Straz Center for the Performing Arts for an opening night more than a year in the making — the first of 48 sold-out performances of Hamilton.
Many predicted a disaster — "complete and total gridlock through the urban core."
"You cannot get in, you cannot get to where you're going on time, and you cannot park," Tampa mayoral candidate Harry Cohen said at a candidate forum that night in Forest Hills.
He was wrong.
Commuters made an orderly exodus just as hockey fans and theatergoers swooped in to steal their parking spots. The Lightning extinguished the Calgary Flames 6 to 3. And unlike past shows mired by parking disasters, staff at the Straz didn't have to hold the curtain for tardy ticket holders.
"It was absolutely thrilling," said Lorrin Shepard, the art center's chief operating officer. "Everything went off without a hitch, and that means a lot because it took a whole lot for us to get here."
The effort may have been unprecedented.
Every aspect of the arrival and departure process was meticulously choreographed by the art center's new "parking task force" — a team comprised of marketing experts, planners and engineering consultants who were brought in to "finally hit parking head on," Shepard said.
In phone calls and emails, communications staff bombarded ticket-holders with parking information, urging them to prepay for spaces, consider taking an Uber or Lyft and to arrive downtown at least an hour before showtime.
Tuesday's show was also opening night for the Straz's new automated texting service, which sent a menu of parking options to ticket-holders' cell phones. The texts were supplemented with tweets, Facebook posts and phone calls.
And if patrons were still confused, Shepard hired two "exuberant young people" to walk the area before every show, passing out fliers and providing directions. Their uniform: neon shirts that read "Parking? Ask me."
The changes were born out of necessity. The Straz lost its most popular parking option two years ago — a 350-space lot just steps away from the center — to a newly-constructed apartment complex.
"Despite all the advanced preparations we made, we were hearing from our guests that there were problems parking here and we were starting to get a reputation, both in the news media and just by the experience people were having," Shepard said.
There were no easy solutions. When the riverside complex was built in 1987, city planners didn't think it would need a dedicated parking lot.
But the planners didn't know the arts center would soon be sharing the neighborhood with a new home for the Tampa Museum of Art, the family-friendly Glazer Children's Museum and events like Saturday's "Beer, Bourbon and BBQ Festival, set to begin just as thousands take their seats for Hamilton's matinee next door.
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They also didn't consider that the Straz would one day become the largest performing arts center in the southeast, easily drawing 4,000 to 5,000 visitors a night to its five theaters, rehearsal hall and performing arts conservatory.
The limited parking in the Straz's control forced staff to forge partnerships with the people who own the parking spots, said Dionne Christian, Shepard's executive administrator.
Local engineering firms helped staff conduct a zip code analysis of season ticket holders to map out their routes to downtown. They found truckstop owners and industrial parks in east Hillsborough where employees were willing to let the arts center park 13 semi trucks full of Hamilton's costumes and set pieces throughout the show's run. That freed up much-needed street parking near the theater.
And the Straz's website now lists 13 privately owned parking locations where ticket-holders can prepurchase a parking pass.
"All of these partnerships have really allowed us to take the anxiety of 'Where am I going to park?' out of the equation completely," Shepard said.
WHERE TO PARK
• Novel Riverwalk Garage, 109 W. Fortune StreetRate: $23.40 (if prepaid). (Must print permit and display on dashboard. )
• Armature Works & Pirate Water Taxi, 1910 N. Ola Avenue.Rate: $6 per person roundtrip (Park free at Armature Works and take a Pirate Water Taxi to the Straz.)
• Royal Regional Lot, 1200 N. Tampa Street.Rate: $3 (Available at on-site parking pay station or through the Parkmobile App. Lot is a 0.3-mile (6-minute) walk to the Straz Center)ED:
• Rivergate Tower, 400 N. Ashley Drive
Rate: $8.42 (Available only by pre-purchase at strazcenter.pmreserve.com)
• William F. Poe Garage, 800 N. Ashley DriveRate: $11 (Available only by pre-purchase at strazcenter.pmreserve.com)
• Times Building Lot, 1000 N. Ashley DriveRate: $24.20 (Available only by pre-purchase at strazcenter.pmreserve.com; $30 is the rate at lot)
• Barrymore Hotel, 111 W. Fortune StreetRate: $20-$30
• TECO Lot North, 111 E. Cass StreetRate: $22 (Available only by pre-purchase at strazcenter.pmreserve.com)
• STRAZ Center Valet Parking, in the Straz Center arrival plaza off Tyler Street. Rate: $18 for off-site and disabled parking and $25 for on-site.
• On-Street Parking. Rate: varies. (Can use parking Pay Stations or the Parkmobile App. The meters/spaces are free weekdays after 6 p.m. and on weekends. Some meters/spaces have a 4-hour time limit.Information courtesy of the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.