Tickets down, but businesses say downtown parking still a problem

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— The number of parking tickets issued in Steamboat Springs has gone down this summer, but some business owners believe that the city's parking problems are far from solved.

Parking violations dropped from 571 last year to 462 this year in the period from June 1 to Aug. 31. The figures count overtime violations in zones where the maximum parking time is anywhere from two to eight hours. Overtime violations account for most of the tickets issued in the downtown area of Steamboat Springs. Police officials, however, believe that the decrease in the number of tickets stems more from compiance on the part of residents and tourists than it does from a reduction in demand for parking.

"People are complying with two-hour parking rules more than they used to," said Capt. Rick Crotz.

A parking study conducted last August found that at least three-fourths of daily parking spaces were being taken by residents and commuters rather than tourists.

Locals also receive more parking tickets than tourists, primarily because first-time offenders only receive a warning. Tourists, who leave after a few days or weeks, will be less likely to repeat their mistakes in that short period of time.

The big drop in the number of tickets seems to indicate that residents and commuters are getting the picture about parking regulations, one official said.

"The locals know not to park out there," said Shane Jacobs, parking officer for the police department.

The department also is making less money on parking tickets than last summer. Fines charged plunged from $5,565 to $1,670.

Police officials said the drop was partially due to a faulty computer system that sometimes fails to recognize multiple offenders and issues them a warning instead of a ticket. Also, new statewide license plates have recently replaced some Routt County plates, further confounding the system. Again, the repeat offenders go unrecognized. The computer system, called "Clancy," has been especially faulty this summer, Crotz said.

The parking debate in town, however, extends beyond parking tickets. The city and business owners have each been trying to get the other to embrace their respective parking proposals.

The city believes a newly paved parking lot outside of Howelsen Ice Arena might help alleviate the parking crunch in downtown Steamboat. Formerly the lot was a graveled area, relatively inaccessible to year-round parking. Currently, the lot is being used as a street hockey rink for local youths, but once the ice rink opens, 90 spaces will be marked, City Manager Paul Hughes said. This summer, besides its use as a hockey rink, the lot has served as an overflow parking lot for the rodeo and alpine slide. With 90 new spaces soon to be available, parking in downtown should ostensibly open up enough for customers to find parking easily.

"We hope the lot will be used by employees who will park there and walk across the bridge to their shops," Hughes said. But, the solution will only work if business owners can encourage their employees to park on Howelsen Hill, he added.

Hughes hopes the lot can at some point be connected to a shuttle service, which would take employees downtown.

Business owners in downtown, however, don't see the lot as a viable answer.

Ty Lockhart, the owner of F.M. Light & Sons downtown, doesn't think the lot will do much good. Lockhart, who is in charge of parking issues for the Downtown Business Association, has battled the city on the lack of the available parking for a number of years and, as far as he's concerned, received no satisfactory solutions from the city. The Howelsen lot is just another failed attempt, he said.

"Why would anybody park over there?" he asked.

Lockhart believes that the city should build a multilevel parking structure within the downtown area so that both employees and customers could have a larger and more convenient place to put their vehicles.

Lockhart isn't the only business owner upset about a lack of parking in the city.

Don Grant, owner of The Homesteader, thinks that the Howelsen lot will do little good for businesses in downtown.

"The parking issue needs to be addressed within the core area of downtown and that doesn't mean Howelsen Hill," Grant said. "The city has chosen to ignore this and continues to ignore it."

Sandy Evans-Hall, director of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, thinks business owners are too quick to judge the new lot.

"Businesses are always looking for additional parking," she said. "We should try utilizing outlying lots before any huge investments are made."

Although the lot will be reserved for ice rink use during the hockey and skating season, Hughes is confident that the city can work out a plan to open the area to the public during the day.

"Like other lots in town that are night and day, that lot could be used for two purposes," Hughes said.

With the ice rink planning on expanding seating capacity in the near future, however, an equitable sharing agreement may be hard to work out. That matter will be decided by the Planning Commission when the arena proposes its expansion.

The parking situation can only really be assessed come winter, when tourism numbers rise even more and businesses need extra spaces.

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203 or e-mail asalzman@amigo.net

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