WILKES-BARRE – The downtown will not have free parking for the holidays for the first time in years.
According to Administrative Coordinator Drew McLaughlin, the city has opted not to institute its annual free meter parking for the holiday season and normal parking operations will continue for the entire year.
Parking enforcement is necessary to increase turnover of spaces which is what drives economic opportunity for downtown merchants, McLaughlin said. The easy availability of parking is crucial to a productive holiday shopping season. Turnover of spaces generally decreases when meter fees are waived for an extended period of time.
For years every Thanksgiving the city would initiate its holiday free meter parking program to allow downtown shoppers and diners to be worry free of getting a ticket if their meter time expired.
Mayor Tom Leighton had said in previous years the program was an advantage to attract shoppers to the city during the busy holiday season.
The free parking continued each year to Jan. 2. Meter parking was free from noon to 8 a.m. each day.
Leighton made the decision in the middle of the city's financial struggle when layoffs are looming and real estate taxes could rise as much as 30 mills to cover an estimated $2 million revenue shortfall.
City council Monday approved the first reading of eight ordinances dealing with fee increases for city-provided services the mayor proposed in next year's budget.
If approved, the cost for one hour at a meter would rise from 75 cents to $1.
John Chaump, president of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association, said people will still shop in the downtown even though the free parking program is halted.
I think people shop downtown because of the stores, Chaump said. However, I still believe the free parking was a plus.
Chaump said the city told him some people/businesses actually complained about the free parking.
Chaump said McLaughlin or another city official will attend the next meeting of the association on Dec. 7 at 8:30 a.m. at Movies 14.
I think there will be a lot of questions, Chaump said.
Whenever she feeds a parking meter in Wilkes-Barre, Renee Loftus throws in a little extra change.
I'm a mom, she said, describing her desire to help the driver who comes along next – probably a college student on a limited budget.
Loftus lives in Jefferson Township, Lackawanna County, but visits Wilkes-Barre often.
When she learned of the possibility the cost of parking for one hour in Wilkes-Barre could leap from 75 cents to $1, Loftus said she was outraged.
I certainly can afford it, she said of the increase, but she's upset on behalf of the students with whom she works as general manager at Wilkes University's radio station WCLH.
Lots of them are paying double, she said, because they pay a fee to park in the university's lots – as does she. However, the spaces in the lots aren't guaranteed, so students and faculty alike can find themselves looking for space on the street.
I think $1 an hour is a little too much, said Andrea Circelli, 19, of Somerset, N.J., who is a Wilkes student. I don't have a car, she added. But my friend does and she already pays $135 to park in a lot (she can't always use.)
Times Leader staff writer Mary Therese Biebel contributed to this story.