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Parking Takes a Holiday

December 21st, 2007 by dk

Published Friday, Dec. 21, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

You have three shopping days left until Christmas. Savvy shoppers are already thinking about thoughtful gifts for Christmas 2008. I hope Eugene’s city councilors are among them.

Each of them has said they want to see downtown revitalized, but they haven’t agreed where to begin. Downtown retailers and restaurateurs don’t share that confusion. They all would love the same gift: free parking downtown in 2008 from November 28 until December 24.

Every issue in Eugene eventually comes around to parking. Parking in Eugene is what writers and creative artists call a “chestnut.” You can bring it out over and over, it’ll stay fresh forever, and people will never tire of it. Open fires are prohibited inside Eugene’s city limits, but let’s roast this chestnut.

As Eugene lurches toward becoming a small city, parking is the issue that makes that transition very real. Parking garages bewilder us. Hunting for a quarter for a quick stop annoys us. Getting distracted and forgetting about our meter distresses us. Getting a $10 ticket while making a $5 purchase angers us.

Every other community seems to have it better than us. Corvallis and Springfield are smaller communities, so parking isn’t as difficult an issue.

Salem is roughly our size, but they made different choices decades ago about parking revenue and funding infrastructure improvements. Eugene chose to build parking structures and pay for them with parking fees. Many now question that strategy, but changing course can’t happen quickly.

Eugene is home to 150,000 people. The city employs 1400 people. The city’s budget approaches $500 million. Direction comes from eight councilors and the mayor. Public input takes time. This is no small ship. What turns it makes must be made slowly. Now is the right time to think about Christmas 2008.

Eugene’s city council will meet in January to set priorities for the coming year. The city’s budget committee will make recommendations. Citizens will be invited to offer feedback. Staff will then be charged with implementing the policies and priorities set by the council.

Free downtown parking in December can also help restore confidence and good will with both government and downtown. If the mayor and council push on this issue now, staff can have it in place in time for next season. What a gift!

We’ve been having the free-parking-downtown debate for decades. It’s both substantial and complex. You can probably rattle off all the arguments for both sides.

For free downtown parking:
– Levels the playing field with suburban shopping malls
– Curbs sprawl by welcoming customers and merchants
– Removes confusion and fear for out-of-towners
– “Sends a message” that downtown is worthwhile

Against free downtown parking:
– Discourages alternative transportation
– Abuse from store employees may use up spaces
– City can’t afford it and still maintain all its other priorities
– It won’t make that much of difference in consumer habits
– Plenty of free or near-free alternatives exist if you know where to look

We know the drill. What we don’t know is which of these assumptions are correct. A holiday from paid parking for four weeks can give us important data to test some of these assumptions.

The best marketing plans remove barriers, add incentives, and (most importantly) take credit for what people are already planning to do. An effective marketer sees where the parade is headed and then rushes to march in front. When consumers’ desires are anticipated, they give back double credit. It’s one thing to be generous. It’s another to be thoughtful.

Governments are learning this lesson. Fourteen states currently offer “sales tax holidays” in August to encourage back-to-school shopping. Libraries forgive late fees with amnesty programs, often coinciding with “spring cleaning.”

In December, we know people will shop, which means they will drive, which means they will park. This explains why Sacramento and Portland have each offered free downtown parking in December.

Think about the businesses that currently thrive downtown. They offer unique products and services — the very definition of “a thoughtful gift.”

Every Eugene City Councilor should take an hour this weekend to venture downtown and pick up a thoughtful gift. If they ask the owner what would make next year’s holiday shopping season brighter, I know what they will hear.


Don Kahle ( is a media, marketing and management consultant for small and civic-minded businesses. Readers may review and comment on past and future columns at his blog, right here.

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  • 1 Barb Kull Jan 5, 2008 at 8:41 am

    Hello Don. Just recently ran across the snippet I tore off of the paper which has your information. I wanted to comment on the free/not free parking issue in downtown Eugene. I first moved here from upstate New York in 1980. I loved to spend time and shop in downtown Eugene until they started to make it difficult to park. I avoid downtown Eugene now that there is a fee to park. I don’t believe opening the streets to traffic made it better either. For a very long time, I enjoyed taking classes through LCC. I do not attend classes in downtown Eugene. Unless I can find a friend to take a class at the same time, I won’t be downtown at night looking to park in dark corners on rainy nights with the creeps that lurk down there. I did not feel this way years ago. At the very least parking should be free at Christmas time. I support free parking. Fee for parking killed my desire to spend time in downtown Eugene. It is just one more headache to deal with.