PARKERSBURG — As businesses and activities closed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Parkersburg suspended enforcement of downtown parking regulations to help businesses there.
This remains in effect two years later, but some city centers are ready to see the delays return.
“The city’s lifting of parking enforcement was beneficial for a little while as people were mostly working from home and trying to cope with all the safety precautions and changes in daily life,” said Amanda Stevens, executive director of Downtown PKB. “The downtown businesses I’ve spoken (to) are ready to resume downtown parking enforcement.”
Mayor Tom Joyce said he has reviewed the situation several times and received mixed feedback. But recently, a group of owners affiliated with Downtown PKB recommended that the city restart enforcement, at least for street parking.
“I take this recommendation into consideration,” Joyce said Thursday. “I’ll probably wait until we have a new chief of police…and we’ll decide when and/or if we’re basically going to institute that recommendation.”
People will be given adequate notice before the change takes effect, the mayor said.
The downtown economy is “still impacted by COVID more than any other geographic location or even industry,” Joyce said. Hundreds of Highmark West Virginia employees continue to work from home or in a hybrid format, while more than 90% of the 2,403 employees assigned to Parkersburg for the Federal Office of Tax Services are telecommuting.
But even without this population regularly downtown, some people say parking is hard to come by.
“If we arrive early, all these parking spaces are already full every morning”, said Walker resident Dianna Hewitt, pointing to metered and 60-minute spaces in the 700 block of Market Street. “If it’s after 8:30, it’s full.”
Hewitt, who paid to hold a spot in a parking lot before retiring from a downtown job, frequently visits the Parkersburg Art Center for crafts. She said she and others park on the grounds of the art center at Eighth and Market streets.
Jessie Siefert, executive and educational director of the Art Center, wants law enforcement back.
“A lot of times we have older customers who just want to stop by…or a parent dropping off a child,” she says. When people can park all day in a space, “This prevents Market Street businesses from having parking immediately available in front of their businesses.”
Robert Bosworth, who works in downtown Catholic Charities West Virginia, said people who come to get food from their soup kitchen sometimes have trouble parking nearby.
“A large part of our clientele is disabled”, he said.
Other companies haven’t seen many issues with parking.
“We are fine” said Chams Ekelman, co-owner of Chams Lebanese Kitchen on Market Street. Although the lunch hour is busy, customers “Always find a place to park.”
The lack of enforcement has had a significant impact on the city’s parking fund, which has operated in deficit for the past several years, city chief financial officer Eric Jiles said during recent hearings on the municipal budget.
Parking meter revenue fell from $64,063 in fiscal year 2018 to $34,382, which included the first three and a half months of the pandemic. That number dropped to $14,298 in fiscal year 2021 as some drivers continued to power meters even when it was not needed.
Overall parking revenue, including rental of spaces on municipal lands, increased from $230,720 in fiscal year 2018 to $141,346 in fiscal year 2021.
Jiles forecast $14,000 in meter revenue and $111,750 in total for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
“It’s hard to say when the entire workforce will return, or ever return, to downtown,” he said.
The parking budget includes $140,318 for staff services but nothing for capital expenditures, according to city budget documents, which cover part of the salary of a supervisor who also works for the Municipal Court and three others workers.
These employees still collected money from meters, repainted meters, mowed dirt and performed other tasks on city buildings and grounds, Joyce said.
“They did a bit of everything” he said “The only thing they haven’t done is (write) tickets.”
Evan Bevins can be reached at [email protected]