With a new downtown parking structure about to open and the fresh eyes of a brand new parking manager, Tracy Scott, Billings is at what one parking expert called “a watershed moment.”
“The stars are all aligned. You have the opportunity to make exciting decisions to move forward,” said Anne Guest, the longtime director of the Missoula Parking Commission, one of the panelists invited to Billings to tour downtown, meet with parking stakeholders and make preliminary recommendations for the upcoming parking strategic plan.
“We think we can help you,” Guest added.
The panelists met Thursday evening with about 25 people to talk about what they’ve learned during their three-day stay in Billings and to unveil their recommendations.
Among those recommendations:
The city has neither a vision statement nor a mission statement for its parking system. “Have a blunt discussion with city staff and the City Council about how those expensive parking structures work for your community,” said Max Clark, parking facilities director for Capital City Development Corp. in Boise, Idaho.
Consider boosting downtown parking fines for expired meters, which the panel termed “ineffective.”
Review downtown loading zone policies.
Some parking structures need to be cleaner and safer. City leaders should consider beautifying the first 30 feet of the structure, which they likened to a storefront. “It should say, ‘Please come in and spend some time here,’” said Jeff Petry, the parking manager in Eugene, Ore.
The Billings parking system could use enhanced technology, which Petry said will make managing the system more effective. If the city will experiment with paying for parking via cellphone, a cellular provider will offer the city a free pilot program, he said.
Parking signage should be clear and consistent. A map of downtown parking lots should be on the city’s website.
City staff and elected officials should keep working with all stakeholders, including bicyclists, transit users and groups that advocate for people with disabilities.
Parking officials must think strategically. Vanessa Solesbee, who formerly managed the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, downtown association, said a person on her staff would periodically take a basket of pastry to a downtown parking garage and distribute them to surprised — and pleased — customers.
Billings ought to come up with a really good slogan — or maybe a metaphor. Dave Feehan, president of Civitas Consultants, shared this comparison from a former colleague in Kalamazoo, Mich.: “Finding a parking spot is like finding a good man. Either they’re headed in the wrong direction, or they are already taken.” Or this slogan for Pittsburgh, Pa., crafted as part of an ad campaign: “It’s like Paris, but without all that French crap.”
Panelists lauded the public/private partnership that led to retail space within the new Empire Parking Garage and generally had high marks for downtown Billings and for the city’s parking system.
“We want to emphasize the importance of partnerships,” said Dennis Burns of Kimley-Horn, which is working with city officials and others to write the parking strategic plan. “These panelists all do a great job engaging their community.”
“We never do anything without a dance partner,” Clark said.
The panelists and Kimley-Horn will supply best practices from parking managers around the country and more ideas from the panelists, but in the end it’s up to Billings residents and downtown stakeholders to help shape their parking system.
“The plan has to pass the common sense test,” he said. “You have to decide, ‘This will move us forward. It makes sense to us.’”