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Downtown parking in Amherst free during holidays

  • Amherst Town Hall



Staff Writer
Monday, November 05, 2018

AMHERST — All parking spots in downtown Amherst will be free on Saturdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a decision made by the Select Board at the request of the Amherst Business Improvement District.

But even though the board Monday approved the free parking in a 3-0 vote, with member Constance Kruger abstaining and member James Wald absent, members said they would like to have more information about the rationale for the organization’s annual appeal.

Kruger said she doesn’t understand the purpose served by the free parking, and asked whether there is evidence that it works as an encouragement for shoppers, diners and others to come to the Amherst center business district in late November and throughout December.

Amherst BID Executive Director Sarah La Cour acknowledged that the benefit of free parking is anecdotal, and that there is no data showing that it aids business. Still, offering free parking is a good idea, she said.

“It is a perception issue,” la Cour said.

La Cour said free parking is also a matter of leveling the playing field, with the main competition for holiday shopping being the stores in Hadley, at malls and other shopping centers, all of which have free and plentiful parking year round.

The free parking begins Nov. 24, the day after Black Friday and which is known nationally as Small Business Saturday, continues Dec. 1, the day the BID designates Pack the Sack, a promotion involving discounts and gift cards at 30 downtown businesses, and then remains in effect Dec. 8, 15 and 22.

While la Cour described the free parking as a gift to shoppers, board member Alisa Brewer noted that the gift is actually the town’s parking revenues that would otherwise go to the Transportation Fund.

Board member Andrew Steinberg said turnover of spaces is one of his concerns, and wondered if the ability for visitors to find parking would be compromised by this “freeness.” If availability of spaces is more limited, visitors may be deterred from their destinations if they are unable to find parking close to their destinations.

The board didn’t make any decision on whether the free parking should coincide with time limits, in part because this would add a level of complication when people would get tickets for parking too long.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said there has been some evidence of business owners and their employees using the free parking spots for many hours.

The free parking continues to be more limited than what existed for about a decade through 2005, when all meters for more than a week in the lead up to Christmas were free each day. This changed in 2006 due to lost revenue, an estimated $50,000 in meter receipts and parking fines that wasn’t going to the Transportation Fund. That year the Select Board restricted free parking to the Boltwood parking garage and the town-owned lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect streets, as well as providing free parking everywhere on Greeting Card Day, a Saturday event that was the predecessor of Pack the Sack.

At the time, similar concerns were mentioned by then Town Manager Larry Shaffer, who described there being a temptation for business owners and their employees to park at the free spaces all day.

La Cour said this year’s request is identical to ones put in for the past three years. Though a new Town Council will be in place next year, la Cour said she hasn’t given a thought yet to whether the BID will ask for free parking for additional days, observing there are several parking issues, including when enforcement begins and ends each day, that already need to be dealt with.

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said her organization will be weighing in on collecting data that would demonstrate the boost businesses get from free parking, and would use this in conjunction with other similar requests in the future that might restrict parking fees at certain times.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.