Adequate, accessible parking is key to the economic health of downtown Steamboat Springs.
As such, we support the recommendations made by a parking focus group and approved last week by the Steamboat Springs City Council. But we also would recommend that additional parking, specifically a multilevel parking garage, be incorporated into any long-term parking plan.
A focus group has been meeting for nearly a year to discuss downtown parking. On Tuesday, the City Council unanimously voted to endorse the group's plan which included reducing the number of eight-hour parking spaces and converting them to four-hour, two-hour and 15-minute spaces; increasing year-round parking enforcement in the downtown area; and adding a traffic light at 11th Street and Lincoln Avenue.
Reducing eight-hour spaces is aimed primarily at downtown employees. A study done in 1999 showed that of the 2,807 parking spaces downtown, employees used 1,800 of those spaces. By reducing the time cars are permitted to park in prime spaces, the focus group hopes to reserve those spots for downtown customers instead of employees.
The parking group also discussed encouraging employees to park at Howelsen Hill or use the Stock Bridge Multi-Modal Transit Center west of town. Such suggestions make sense -- downtown businesses must keep as many parking spaces as possible clear for customers. But we are not convinced the suggestions are realistic -- employees likely will continue to seek spots that keep their vehicles as close as possible to where they work.
Besides, those recommendations seem to ignore a key point: downtown employees also are downtown customers -- people who regularly spend their wages at Lincoln Avenue stores and restaurants. Simply moving them farther from the center of the commercial district doesn't solve the problem. Space is needed for them as well as people who visit downtown strictly to spend money rather than earn it.
Also, the Multi-Modal Transit Center may be a good idea in theory but, so far, it has not proven to be practical for visitors, residents or downtown employees. A small fraction of the 145 spaces at the center are used regularly. A vast majority of the spaces sit empty most of the time.
The focus group calculated that a lack of parking to accommodate employees and shoppers costs downtown businesses up to $65 million per year. That number is likely to increase with the addition of new shopping centers -- with plenty of convenient parking -- east of town. Maintaining the vibrancy of the downtown area demands a parking plan that combats such potential losses.
Significant additional parking must be created to solve the problem. Yes, we recognize that the cost to add a multi-level garage with 200 spaces likely will exceed $10 million. But, as the Local Marketing District and the urban renewal authority prove, there are creative options for financing such parking. And if the lack of parking is costing businesses even a tenth of what the focus group estimated, a parking garage would pay for itself in less than two years.
Downtown Steamboat is one of this community's greatest assets, and the success of the stores is critical to our sales-tax funded city. We applaud efforts of the parking focus group. But if we really want to enhance the commercial viability of our downtown area, then we should be looking for ways to add significantly more parking for potential customers. We think this is a case where, if we build it, they will come.