On Monday the Prince George Chamber of Commerce made the case for continuing free parking downtown.
The Chamber presented the results of a survey showing 65.5 per cent of the businesses asked opposed bringing back pay parking. Additionally, 60.9 per cent of those surveyed said they shop more downtown since the parking meters were removed in 2009.
What makes that result interesting is that the majority of the businesses surveyed - 86 out of 151 -are not located in the downtown. That means that at least some businesses outside the downtown support free parking for their downtown competitors.
The board of the Downtown Business Improvement Association has also come out opposing the move, citing concerns about hindering downtown revitalization.
The city's own survey, which got only 35 responses, was 57 per cent in favour of free parking downtown.
In that survey, 24 of the 35 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that free parking was essential to downtown. However, 15 of 35 agreed they were willing to pay for convenient on-street parking.
The Citizen's own informal, unscientific canvas of downtown business operators, workers and shoppers showed similar results to the chamber and city's surveys.
Despite the opposition of business community, the Downtown Business Improvement Association and the city's own survey, city council is proceeding with a paid parking plan for downtown.
The reason is simple: money.
In 2007 the city's parking division generated $80,000 in profits for the city through a mix of meter revenues and fines. Following the removal of the meters, the city now loses approximately $81,000 per year on its parking division.
Given the tight financial corner the city has found itself in, that $161,000 per year difference weighed heavily on council's decision to return to paid parking. Free parking is free in the same way that free healthcare is free -the cost is shared by the taxpayer rather than paid upfront by the individual user.
Compared to some of other investments the city is making in downtown revitalization, however, free parking may be the cheapest and most cost-effective.
In September, city council approved a $190,000 property tax exemption for an eight-unit townhouse complex on Seventh Avenue. The tax holiday came under the city's 10-year tax exemption for new downtown investments.
While not yet disclosed, the tax break for the $40 million hotel and condo development at the corner of 10th Avenue and Patricia Boulevard will likely come in the millions. And many other downtown property owners have taken advantage of the tax exemption to do facade upgrades.
Other projects include the $39 million new RCMP detachment, Third Avenue beautification, the Veteran's Plaza upgrade, and the cosmetic upgrades to George Street along the Downtown District Energy System pipeline corridor.
Clearly city council has not shied away from spending taxpayer dollars to revitalize the city's core -nor should they have. Downtown is one of the first things many visitors, investors and conference goers see when they come to town.
An attractive, functioning downtown makes a positive impression for the whole city -and a dilapidated, run-down, empty downtown makes an even stronger negative one.
Which is why spending $161,000 per year on free parking to keep shoppers, restaurant goers and clients coming downtown is a small, worthwhile investment for the city to make.
Instead of investing substantial money into new paid parking infrastructure, the city should look at ways of improving enforcement to increase fine revenue and discourage abuses. New technology, including vehicle-mounted license plate recognition systems, have revolutionized parking enforcement in other cities. With the right tools, free parking can and does work.
If the city's downtown revitalization is a success, there will come a day when paid on-street parking is the only viable solution - but today is not that day.
-- Arthur Williams, associate news editor