Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, told commissioners she expects the first two hours of parking to remain free until at least July 2025. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

Owners of several Lakeland businesses have reached out to city commissioners expressing concern about proposed downtown parking changes — including the possible elimination of free parking for the first two hours and raising rates to $2 an hour for on-street spaces.

A study by Kimley-Horn recommended that Lakeland simplify confusing signage to help people understand where to park and how to park. It also recommended charging a premium for street parking to encourage people to use city garages and surface lots instead.

At a workshop on Feb. 5, traffic operations staff presented a timeline of short-, medium- and long-range recommendations that seemed to suggest rate changes could happen as soon as spring 2024.

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The presentation did not specify when free parking might be phased out, but it mentioned raising on-street metered rates to up to $2 an hour this spring, prompting confusion among community stakeholders.

Currently, street parking is free for the first two hours and then people can pay $1 an hour for up to two more hours, plus a 45-cent service fee if they use the Park Mobile smartphone app.

Downtown business owners' concerns

In an email to commissioners, Black & Brew owner Chris McArthur wrote: “A significant portion of our business is drop-in, take-out, delivery and small transactions. Under the proposed changes, a customer who would previously drop in and spend 30 minutes with us for a $4 latte, now has to weigh whether spending 25-50% more, coupled with the inconvenience of dealing with a parking app, is worth the trouble.”

“Convenience is king in the present culture. Anytime you introduce the smallest amount of friction in the user experience, you risk losing the customer altogether.”

chris mcarthur, owner of black & brew

Chef Marcos Fernandez, owner of downtown’s Nineteen61, also reached out to Mayor Bill Mutz and commissioners to express concern.

Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, told commissioners Monday that although Lakeland's system of mixing free and paid parking is unique and hard to communicate clearly on a sign, it is important to businesses. She said she expects the first two hours to remain free at least until fiscal 2025-2026.

“We could not find a city anywhere that gave two hours on street for free and then shifted into a paid system. We couldn't find one,” Townsend said. “I want to preserve that for the downtown businesses. I want to make sure that they are not harmed by any parking changes, negatively impacted.”

Townsend said she is hosting a meeting for downtown businesses at 8 a.m. Tuesday at My Office & More, 122 E. Main Street to discuss the issue.

“I'll go through their concerns and their questions and come back and make sure that your staff knows and that you know as well,” she said. “But I didn't think that that was an emergent meeting because I didn't expect the communication of what was presented in the workshops to be presented in such a way that it made it seem like we were immediately going to start charging $2 on the street, because that is not the case.”

Commissioners didn’t commit to anything, but said they have also heard concerns from many business owners.

“We haven't decided anything yet,” Commissioner Mike Musick said. “Nothing's come before us that we’ve voted, so we're just still taking in some information.”

Commissioner Guy LaLonde Jr. echoed the sentiment: “There has been no vote on this yet; it's just all of us guessing.”

Commissioner Sara McCarley emphasized, “This is a continuing dialogue.”

Mayor Pro Tem Stephanie Madden told Townsend, “We appreciate you coming because we have seen the backlash that you're experiencing and people being frustrated and confused.”

Under the city’s traffic ordinances, some parking changes can be made administratively by the city’s traffic engineer. Others, like extending enforcement hours to 10 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., require a vote by commissioners.

Commissioners did vote Monday to approve a $236,225 contract with TCS International, Inc. for digital parking guidance systems for the city's Main Street and Heritage garages.

Monthly permit costs also cause concern

Although most of the furor was about hourly parking, at least one business owner also raised concerns about a proposed increase in the cost of monthly permits.

The city's Downtown Parking Management proposal would eliminate the distinction between surface and covered parking permit rates and raise all permit rates that are not locked into long-term contracts to $80 a month for the remainder of fiscal year 2024. Rates would increase again to $90 a month in fiscal year 2025, which starts July 1, and $100 for fiscal year 2026.

Katy Martinez, owner of My Office & More, said, “I am asking that we all look very closely at taking permits from $35 a month to $80 a month in one shot. This particularly in a time of high inflation.”

“I do understand that $35 a month is too low. We need to increase it,” Martinez said. “I'm just concerned that more than doubling the rate could cause unintended consequences and move people out of lots and onto the streets.”

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Cindy Glover moved to Lakeland in 2021 after spending two decades in South Florida. She was a crime reporter, City Hall reporter and chief political writer for newspapers including the Albuquerque Journal and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. She spent a year as a community engagement coordinator for the City of Lakeland before joining Jazbablog. Reach her at [email protected] or 561-212-3429.

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2 Comments

  1. I can't think of a better way to chase commerce out of downtown Lakeland. Pay twice the price to stop for a cup of coffee.

  2. I can't blame the downtown businesses for their concern. I would be too. I have lived in Lakeland for the past 23yrs. I remember back in the day nobody wanted to go downtown. Over the years the downtown became a nice place to go. With all the city approved development in the downtown area I knew parking would go up. My wife and I enjoyed going downtown. The recently built office building and parking garage has blocked the beautiful view of Lake Mirror. City commissioners who approved this ruined the downtown area in my opinion. Raising parking fees will be the kiss of death to the downtown overtime. The city commissioners should've thought of this before approving the development in the downtown. My wife and I are retired. We are not going to park in any garage and have to walk a couple of blocks to wherever the business is we want to patronize. Especially in bad weather. We have other choices in the area to go to and not have to worry about parking. Monthly increase in parking considered is outrageous. Watch how fast people leave the downtown. There is a cost and consequences to growth. They can spin it anyway they want but bottom line the businesses will suffer and leave over time.

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