Updated

Businesses say profits continuing to decline

By ETHAN BUTTERFIELD

Eagle Staff Writer

Nearly a year and a half after College Station started charging drivers to park throughout Northgate, the removal of free spaces remains controversial.

Many store owners in the area say the city’s move is still cutting into their profits, despite a reduction in parking rates last summer. The city, meanwhile, isn’t making enough money from parking fees to cover debt payments on its Northgate Parking Garage as planned.

“We’re never going to get parking to a perfect science at Northgate, I don’t believe,” Sarge’s owner Robert Forrest said. “There are just too many different issues. But it could be better than what it is. We need to be more customer-friendly.”

For years, public parking at Northgate didn’t cost a dime. That changed in February 2002, when College Station abandoned all free parking and placed meters on Northgate streets.

The idea was to create parking turnover and prevent Texas A&M University students and employees from parking at Northgate all day for free, City Manager Tom Brymer said.

“You’d have people — whether they were employees of the university or students — they would go over there and park there all day,” Brymer said. “That was a problem for the business community in Northgate, particularly the daytime businesses.”

At the time, though, area merchants complained the fees were too high — up to $1.50 an hour during peak-use times — and kept customers away. The city responded last summer by adjusting the fees to 50 cents an hour from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and free at other times, College Station fiscal services director Charles Cryan said.

But the damage was already done, Texas Aggie Bookstore owner John Raney said.

“The whole thing was just kind of mismanaged and drove people away,” he said.

As a result, customers remain wary of paying for parking, Forrest said.

“You ask them where they’ve been, and they say, ‘Well, we’re not coming to Northgate as much as we used to,’” he said. “Or, ‘We’re not coming up there at all. We quit because of the paid parking. Why should we go there when we can go somewhere else where it’s free?’”

Loupot’s Bookstore spokeswoman Suanne Pledger said paid parking clearly has affected business. Pledger would not put a figure on how much business has dropped off at the Northgate location, “but it is significant,” she said.

The other two Loupot’s locations in College Station have not felt the same hit, she said.

Don Ganter, who owns Dixie Chicken, Shadow Canyon, Satchel’s and other properties, was more blunt.

“It’s about ripped us in half,” Ganter said of the shift to paid parking.

Ganter estimated that his businesses’ revenues are down 45 to 50 percent since 1998, when the city put meters in the Northgate promenade parking lot.

Raney said paid parking has hurt his business to the tune of 10 percent a year for the past three years. It’s to the point where the Northgate bookstore makes no profit, Raney said, so he plans to open a second location on Texas Avenue.

“I don’t have a choice,” he said. “It’s not really what I want to do. I’m 56 years old and I don’t want to go out and borrow a bunch of money right now, but that’s what I’m going to do.

“I’m not making any money at Northgate, if you want to know the truth. By being able to put some sales somewhere else, I’ll be able to make some money.”

Brymer said the parking fees are more than fair. Parking at the city-owned garage is 50 cents an hour, with a maximum fee of $2 a day.

“I think, given the level of capital investment the city has put in over there, that it is extremely equitable,” he said.

Cryan estimated that the street meters, the promenade lot and the garage will generate about $500,000 this year. That’s enough to cover the roughly $367,000 in operating expenses for managing parking in the area, city documents show.

But revenues are not enough to also cover the $450,000 annual debt payment on the $6.2 million loan the city took out to build the parking garage. The difference will be covered by excess money in the city’s debt service fund, Cryan said.

He said the parking garage is getting more use and, in a few years, will likely make enough to cover both operating expenses and debt service, as it was intended to.

Brymer said the city could bring in more revenue if parking fees were higher, which area business owners already complained about.

“We were simply trying to strike a balance between generating enough revenue to cover our operating expenses and creating the parking turnover that businesses need,” Brymer said.

Raney said he hopes the city will consider posting time limits at parking spaces instead of using meters. But, he said, that may not be the best solution for the city.

“I know what they’re looking at, and I can somewhat understand — it takes a human being to go around and chalk cars, and that’s an expensive thing,” Raney said. “And we’re looking at a less-expensive method of handling it, so I sure understand where that came from.”

Ganter, though, remains adamant.

“I don’t think there should be paid parking at all in the area,” he said.

• Ethan Butterfield’s e-mail address is ebutterfield@ theeagle.com.

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