A parking study of downtown Sylva conducted by a Western Carolina University graduate student has gotten local merchants talking and left the town board facing a puzzle.
For years downtown merchants have complained that the lack of available parking for customers hurts their businesses. But the study concludes that the town’s some 600 existing places are enough.
Thaddeus Huff –– a graduate student in public administration in his last semester at WCU –– authored the study as his final research topic for his professor, Dr. Chris Cooper. Huff circulated 50 surveys to business owners in the Downtown Sylva Association asking five basic questions about their views on parking downtown. The responses showed that 65 percent of the business owners felt there wasn’t enough parking for customers, and 69 percent felt there wasn’t enough parking for employees in downtown.
In March, Huff followed up the survey with a study of the supply and demand of parking in each of the downtown’s eight blocks, counting the number of spaces and the occupancy rate in each block four different times of day on four separate days.
The findings were surprising. Only three blocks downtown in the areas of Mill and Main streets closest to their intersection routinely had more than 70 percent of their parking spaces utilized at a given time of day.
Huff’s summary of the survey reframed the discussion about parking in downtown Sylva as having more to do with how far people are willing to walk from available spaces to their destinations.
“Given that the supply, in this case, is not the problem, the issue seems to be the proximity to certain locations for drivers,” Huff concludes in the study. “The answer is not more parking spaces. Even with no access to private lots, an argument could be made there is plenty of parking to meet the demand given the time periods the counts were conducted in.”
But tell that to the merchants who get phone calls from customers in their cars asking if they can get curbside service because they’ve already circled past the store three times.
Sarella Jackson, an employee of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, testified to that as she walked out of Annie’s Bakery on Monday.
“Most of the time, parking is a problem. It’s relatively hard to find parking close to the building at lunch time,” Jackson said.
She said it is not uncommon for her to circle the block two or three times before she finds a spot.
Annie Ritota, who opened Annie’s Bakery eight years ago, winces when she hears customers complaining about parking.
“We do have a problem on this end of town,” Ritota said.
A parking solution discussed in the past is for the town to purchase or lease a vacant private lot on the prime stretch of Main Street, the former Dodge dealer lot owned by Sam Cogdill.
Ritota said she would support the town leasing or buying the lot, although she wasn’t 100 percent sure it would solve the problem. Instead, Ritota suggested limiting how long people could occupy a prime downtown spots.
“Obviously that lot would be very helpful,” Ritota said. “But I’ve always said maybe if we went back to paid parking so people could come and go, people wouldn’t stay all day.”
Huff has also taken planning courses, and he said from a planning perspective, the town would ideally put the empty car lot owned by Cogdill to some use because vacant lots in a downtown send the wrong message.
But both Mayor Maurice Moody and Commissioner Sarah Graham said they would have a hard time spending the town’s money on parking when it was facing a very tight budget this year.
“Right now we’re paying for a pedestrian plan and directional signage, and I’d like to see those play out before we commit to another expense in parking,” Graham said.
Sheryl Rudd, co-owner of Heinzelmannchen said Mill Street’s problem is almost certainly the result of too many merchants and their employees occupying the handful of prime on-street spots readily accessible to customers.
The result is infuriating for Rudd.
“We lose business,” she said.
Rudd attended the town board meeting where Huff presented his findings and said she appreciated the information but would like to have seen the results of a similar study conducted during the high part of the tourist season.
Rudd said she favors the idea of the town leasing the Cogdill lot and either the Downtown Sylva Association or merchants reimbursing the town for a particular number of designated spaces.
Huff, who lives in Asheville, said most of the studies he used as models dealt with bigger towns. But he still thinks Sylva’s free parking could be part of the problem.
“If you give out free pizza, there’s never enough pizza,” Huff said.
Huff recommended a number of measures that could alleviate some of the strain the merchants are feeling around parking. He advocates better signage to steer people to the town’s public lots. He also recommends a firm policy against employees parking in spots for customers, and reviewing the idea of metered parking on Main Street.
The issue of downtown employees taking up prime on-street spots in front of businesses has been a topic of heated discussion the past, and a number of downtown business owners agree that it is a starting point for the discussion.
Recently one downtown merchant anonymously left flyers on car windows that read, “Dear customers. I work downtown. I took your parking space and you, the customer, had to search for parking.”
Steve Dennis, owner of Hollifield Jewelers, also thinks employees parking on Main Street all day are a large part of the issue.
“The enforcement needs to be addressed in terms of people staying a long period of time,” Dennis said. “You don’t need to drive up and walk straight into your job.”
Mayor Moody said he needed to study the results of Huff’s project in more detail before he responded to it directly.
“I think we all need more time to look at it closely,” Moody said.
Huff agreed the same type of parking count he conducted should be repeated during the high tourist season and on a festival week, but he really believes the town has to look at the parking issue holistically and not a simple shortage of open parking spaces.