A high-tech bah humbug


    The day after Thanksgiving not only traditionally marks the start of the holiday shopping season, it also kicks off the city’s customary season of 60 minutes of free parking at downtown ramps.

    But a change had to be made to this year’s free-parking offering.

    The high-tech, automated pay stations in city ramps can’t accept the coupons that last year were available for download at the Downtown Alliance Web site. So this year, downtown shops and restaurants will distribute the coupons to customers.

    The coupons will look exactly like a ramp ticket, but in a different color. Customers will run their regular ramp tickets through a pay station. When the automated female voice asks for payment, they will insert the free-parking coupon/ticket.

    The pay station will reduce the parking charge by an hour’s worth if someone has parked for longer than an hour, or will lift the gate for someone who has parked for an hour or less.

    “We’re working on getting all of that ready before Thanksgiving,” said Pam Ritsema, director of Parking Services, which has the Downtown Alliance as its marketing partner for the annual program.

    The parking commission decided this year to let the alliance select which businesses will get the coupons. A few commissioners questioned whether service businesses, such as law firms, and college students should have access to the coupons as the program’s goal is to boost customer traffic to retail shops and restaurants during the holiday season.

    “During a cash-strapped time for the city, why should we give free parking to people who come down anyway?” asked Commissioner David Leonard.

    The month-long, 60-minutes-free program will run from Friday, Nov. 27 through Dec. 31.

    This year, the free-parking program will cost Parking Services a bit more money due to the change in the distribution of coupons.

    “There is an increased cost to this instead of just printing,” said Ritsema.

    Last year, 1,184 coupons were used and 1,310 were used in 2007. Despite a 10 percent drop in coupon use in 2008, Parking Services saw its revenue from the program increase by 20 percent, as coupon users parked longer last year than the previous year.

    The 2008 revenue totaled $3,710, while the department’s take in 2007 was $3,086.

    A list of businesses that will have coupons will be available at downtowngr.org.

    “We know this was far more difficult this year and we’re very grateful that they found a way to make this work,” said Sharon Evoy, Downtown Alliance executive director, of the change Parking Services had to make. “So we’re very happy that they’re able to offer this program again.”

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