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Rate hike

Downtown Champaign business owners say their businesses have just taken a hit.

They say the recently passed parking meter rate increases will drive customers away.

On Dec. 18, the Champaign City Council voted to triple the hourly parking rates in the heart of downtown from 25 to 75 cents starting this month. Meter rates in the fringe areas of downtown, outside of the central core, will be 25 and 50 cents an hour. The rates will be fully implemented by Jan. 31.

The downtown core includes Walnut Street, University Avenue, Main Street and parts of Park, Church and Hill streets.

The council also voted to increase the fine for parking in an expired meter from $10 to $20, with the fine increasing to $30 if the ticket isn't paid within 72 hours, according to the News-Gazette.

In addition, the city will also extend the hours of parking meter enforcement from the current 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., starting July 1.

T.J. Blakeman, a Champaign City planner, said the general philosophy behind the meter rate increases is two-fold: 1.) To encourage business owners to park outside the core to allow core spaces for customer parking; and 2.) To help pay for the 600-space parking garage that is being built at the corner of Hill and Randolph streets.

Mayor Jerry Schweighart tried to persuade council members for weeks before the vote to increase the meter rates to only 50 cents an hour. He said he was concerned about maintaining foot traffic in downtown.

"Maintaining a downtown is very delicate anyway," he said.

He cited areas on campus that cost 75 cents an hour for meter parking.

"I went over to the campus area where it's 75 cents," Schweighart said. "It makes you stop and think, 'do I really need to be here?'"

The consensus among business owners appears to be that 75 cents an hour is simply too much, although they all say the parking garage is a good idea. But they also say the meter rate increase will harm their sales.

Jim Greenfield, owner of Spritz Jewelers on North Neil Street in Champaign, said he thinks the increase to 75 cents an hour is too high. He said the city occupies too many spaces for loading zones that shoppers could use.

Mary Tangora, owner of Wind Water & Light and a member of the Champaign Downtown Association, said the association is concerned that customers of all businesses aren't able to park in the core of downtown if employees are parked there.

She said that the increase to 75 cents an hour will deter employees from parking in the core, but that customers were already complaining about it even before the council officially passed it.

"I don't want to scare people away from downtown," Tangora said. "And they're scared already."

She also doesn't like the idea that the core meters will expire after two hours.

"To me, two hours isn't enough to eat lunch and go shopping," she said. She suggests the meters should allow three to four hours of parking time.

Rick Orr, owner of Rick Orr florist, agreed.

"Why make your downtown excursion feel like it's rushed?" he asked.

Orr said the parking meter rate increase puts downtown Champaign businesses at a disadvantage.

"The increase is only chasing people away to the mall or other towns like Indianapolis or Chicago," he said.

Orr said that during the month of December three or four years ago, the city put bags on the downtown meters to give people free parking so they would shop downtown.

The increase in the fee for a parking ticket will also deter people from shopping downtown, Orr said.

Pedro Heller, one of the owners of the Esquire Lounge, said the rate increase will negatively affect downtown businesses and deter a significant number of customers.

"It's a competitive world. There's a lot of businesses where you don't have to pay to park," he said.

Heller said extending the parking meter enforcement to 9 p.m. will harm his business.

"If the rates were reasonable, it wouldn't matter as much," he said. "But it will compound the problem."

If the city thinks the new garage will help the entire community, then the entire community should pay for it, he said.

"I don't take the MTD, but I pay for it," Heller said.

Rebecca Schoell, the owner of Rebecca's, said an increase in parking meters downtown will only marginally affect businesses and that she thinks the parking garage will be a welcome addition to downtown.

"I think most people who know downtown will still come," Schoell said.

Since the daytime businesses are the ones who take on most of the parking woes, Schoell said the extended hours of enforcement are justified.

"It's fair for the rest of the restaurant and entertainment industry to share the burden," she said. "I have mixed feelings about it, although it's nice to have a reprieve."

Carol Knepp, executive director of the Orpheum Children's Museum, said there were increases years ago and people protested them. But, just like gas prices, in the long run, people will still want to be downtown, so they'll pay the increased rate.

"It'll discourage people for a while," Knepp said.

For the convenience of customers, the Orpheum hopes to create a fund to help patrons who aren't prepared to pay for the parking meters. Wind Water & Light also hopes to start some sort of similar program to ease the burden for shoppers.

"In the long run, it won't hurt," Knepp said.

Knepp said since the entertainment and resources downtown are unmatched anywhere else in the city, people will still patronize downtown.

Knepp is in full support of adding a parking garage to downtown Champaign. She likes the convenience of Urbana's downtown parking garage.

Harold Allston, owner of The Great Impasta, said the timing is wrong for a meter increase.

"We are in an economic time of price consciousness,"

he said.

When businesses add 400 to 500 seats in terms of new restaurant or bar space, then the parking is decreased simultaneously, businesses are going to suffer, Allston said.

"Wait until the parking deck is done," he said. "It seems like they can afford to wait."

It's easier for people to accept the increase if there's a visible cause and effect, Allston said. For example, the parking garage goes up, and then the rates are increased.

Allston has mixed feelings on extending the hours of meter enforcement, although he said it does even the playing field between daytime and primarily evening businesses.

"If you are going to extend the hours to 9 p.m., why not extend them until 2 a.m. and include all of the businesses in the entertainment sector?" Allston said.

People have a choice to come downtown, and increasing the meter rates might encourage them to choose to go elsewhere, he said.

Allston said downtown is not like campustown because people often need to park near campus for work or class, but they come to downtown Champaign primarily for entertainment, which they can choose to do or not, he said.

"I have great faith in the direction of the city and downtown, but we are in a great transition period," Allston said.

- Greta Weiderman is editor of Central Illinois Business Magazine. She can be reached at (217) 351-5695 or

gweiderman@news-gazette.com.

- Emily Fletcher can be reached at (217) 351-5244 or efletcher@news-gazette.com.

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