Macon’s downtown parking meters were never meant to “make a ton of money”

When 577 smart parking meters were installed in downtown Macon almost a year ago, the main goal was to encourage more turnover in prime spots to help increase the number of people shopping and dining at area businesses.

If the meters made money, that would be considered an added benefit, and the profit would help fund some improvements downtown, officials said.

Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, said the meters were never meant to “make a ton of money,” and that they are accomplishing what they were intended to do and then some.

“The primary goal of the program was to assist with prosperity downtown by making parking more available for business activity,” Morrison said earlier this year. “We discovered most of the blocks downtown were at or near 100 percent occupied all day every day, and the predictability to find a space was very limited.”

Meanwhile, the meters, being maintained and operated by Lanier Parking Meter Service for the development authority, also are helping the owners of private and public garages, including the authority, make more money.

While Morrison, some downtown business owners and visitors say the meters are doing what they were supposed to do, other customers and downtown workers are still getting used to the new meters.

Meters working for some, not others

Wes Griffith, who owns the Moonhanger Group and manages four businesses — The Rookery, Dovetail, H&H Restaurant and Hargray Capitol Theatre — is happy with the new meter program.

“I assumed it would create more turnover on the street, and that people who were willing to pay pocket change to have a parking spot would be happy to do so,” Griffith said. “My sales are up. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the parking meters, but it definitely hasn’t hurt me.”

While he said there have been “a handful of people” complaining about the meters, he suspects those are people who don’t come downtown often.

“I think it’s created more parking opportunities for people coming in and trying to get in and get out, eat in a restaurant,” Griffith said.

Fred Bioust, a frequent downtown visitor, said he likes the parking meters because they are easy to use, and he said they seem to make it easier to find parking spots closer to the places he and his wife are visiting.

“We’re from Atlanta, so … they had something similar to this in Atlanta,” said Teresa, Fred’s wife.

Not everyone has found the transition easy.

Merritt Johnson said she doesn’t come downtown as much because she hates paying the meters. She said she’s had her meter expire before she finished shopping or eating at downtown businesses.

“For whatever benefit it is to the city, I guess it’s OK, but as far as me, I don’t like them,” Johnson said. “The parking is, it’s terrible downtown to me.”

Also, some downtown employees, who used to park on the streets all day while they worked, are trying to figure out the best places to park now, Griffith said.

“I wish there were some more options for downtown employees,” he said. “I think they may eventually move into some of the parking garages.”

Griffith owns the garage in the alley behind The Rookery by Downtown Grill, and he uses it for valet parking at night and for monthly parking during the day.

The meter parking program has meant good business for garages because they are being utilized more, he said.

“My garage is almost near capacity because employees and people who were trying to park on the streets all day are now parking in garages,” Griffith said.

Griffith’s garage charges $60 per month for parking, according to the PARK Macon-Bibb website.

There are six garages in downtown Macon open to the public for daily and monthly parking. Lanier manages two garages, one on Mulberry and another on Poplar streets, with the Mulberry garage owned by the city.

The garages managed by Lanier cost $1 an hour or $5 per day, and the monthly rate is based on the market rate for the location, according to officials.

The Mulberry garage has generated $110,000 in revenue since May 2018 and spent $100,000 in expenses, according to the Park Macon-Bibb Six Month Review report created in March.

Some free street parking also is available outside of the metered areas downtown.

Program on track financially

Morrison said the parking program is on track to pay back the cost of the equipment and to get the program under way, as well as contribute to improvements downtown.

The development authority took out a loan for $750,000 to cover the cost of the meters and installation, Morrison said. He said the authority also took about $20,000 out of its general fund to pay Lanier’s expenses before the meters started making money.

“The loan we took out is on a seven-year amortization, and so we pay that back monthly out of the meter revenue,” Morrison said.

“Every month that we’ve had parking revenue, we had a positive cash balance net of paying the loan, Lanier’s expenses, credit card processing fees, app fees, all of that,” he said. “While the whole system is not breaking even because we still have the $850,000 debt that will be paid back over seven years, we have positive cash flow.”

Not all of that money is coming from what gets put into the meters. Some of it is from tickets issued to drivers who overstay the time limit, park in no-parking zones, etc.

During the first few weeks, drivers got a warning if they parked over the time limit, Morrison said. Once Lanier began enforcing the parking laws, a lot of tickets were issued until people realized it was more economical to obey the rules or park in a garage, he said.

Between July 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019, 19,595, tickets were issued, according to data provided by the authority. More than 100 people have been ticketed multiple times.

There are 105 people on the scofflaw report that combined have more than $28,000 in total violations and fines, according to the Park Macon-Bibb Six Month Review report.

Some of the fines and money pumped into the meters will eventually come back to help those who drive and park downtown.

All the revenues from the parking program are public revenues, and “Lanier does not get incentives for writing more tickets,” Morrison said. “The money all goes into a pot for downtown improvements. So, no matter what, Lanier gets paid the same amount … every month.”

Ben Steffen, the territory manager for Lanier Parking Solutions, submitted a list of potential improvements and next steps for the parking program to the authority earlier this month.

The first improvements listed were painting curbs, updating signage and re-striping parking spots.

“It’s an easy fix, but it makes the whole city seem much fresher and much more inviting,” Steffen said in the meeting.

Other next steps that Steffen submitted for consideration included:

Making improvements to the Mulberry parking garage

Improving the office space of Park Macon-Bibb

Creating a gift card program through the Passport app

Turning over scofflaws to the municipal court system

Adding the Tubman Museum parking lot to the parking program

Expanding the meter zone

Encouraging the owners of the Cherry Street and SunTrust garages to join the Park Macon-Bibb program.

At this time, there is no plan to expand the meters to other streets, Morrison said. But as development continues downtown, “then we will have to address those issues,” he said.

“But the system is working pretty efficiently where the premium blocks are still occupied a fair amount of time, and there is usually a space available on those popular streets segments,” he said. “And people are still able, if they chose, to find free parking just outside that area.”

Where are the meters?

The streets that have meters are: First, Second, Third, Cotton Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between Plum and Walnut streets and Mulberry, Cherry and Poplar streets between First Street and Martin Luther King Jr.

The meters will accept coins, credit card or pay by the Passport app.

What it costs to park at meters

Metered parking costs $1.25 an hour for up to three hours.

It is free to park on the metered streets after 8 p.m. and on Sundays. In addition, parking is free on New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Downtown residents who live on certain streets are eligible to purchase a residential parking program garage pass for reduced monthly rates.