By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Shoppers visiting Ocean City’s downtown stores and restaurants won’t have to worry about having to pay for parking all year long.
Voting 7-0 at its meeting Thursday night, City Council introduced an ordinance to rescind a short-lived proposal to keep the parking meters in operation on the downtown Asbury Avenue shopping corridor throughout the entire year.
Normally, parking meters are active only during the summer tourism season, from May 1 to Oct. 31.
The Downtown Merchants Association, an organization representing store owners, originally asked the city to keep the meters on all year as a way to discourage non-shoppers from monopolizing the coveted parking spaces lining Asbury Avenue from Sixth Street to 14th Street.
However, a recent change in the association’s leadership and a larger sampling of shop owners who questioned the wisdom of having parking meters in operation year round resulted in an about-face on the plan.
So, the Downtown Merchants Association went back to City Council with a request to keep the parking meters on only from May 1 to Oct. 31. Council accepted the idea, leading to Thursday’s vote to repeal having the downtown parking meters remain on all year long.
The parking meter ordinance is scheduled for a public hearing and final vote by Council at the May 25 meeting.
Councilwoman Karen Bergman said the vote to rescind plans for year-round parking meters should mean that “everybody is happy.”
Caitlin Quirk, the newly elected president of the Downtown Merchants Association, thanked Council, Mayor Jay Gillian’s administration and Police Chief Jay Prettyman for supporting the request to repeal the proposal for year-round meters.
“We originally came to the administration and requested to have the meters turned on year-round in order to deal with employees, owners and residents parking for extended hours on the avenue. But, after a larger discussion, it was clear that, as a group, we wanted to exhaust all options before potentially discouraging off-season shoppers with a parking fee,” Quirk told the Council members.
In hopes of researching the issue further, Quirk said she circulated a survey this week among the downtown merchants to ask them their feelings about the downtown parking problems and how to solve them during the off-season.
Among a total of 47 responses to the survey, 21 merchants said they preferred to revisit the option of year-round parking meters next year, Quirk said.
A smaller number of merchants either thought that the city should keep the parking meters on all year or that another option should be pursued. Just six merchants said they believe there is no off-season parking issue, according to the survey.
Quirk said she is planning to form a parking committee among the downtown merchants to continue the discussions and develop some solutions that could be presented to city officials later on.
The now-dead idea for year-round parking meters in the downtown was originally part of a new ordinance approved by Council last month to raise the parking rates throughout Ocean City to generate an extra $500,000 in annual revenue for the municipal budget.
Council approved the parking increase by a 7-0 vote on April 13. It represented the first time the city has raised parking fees since 2015.
At the parking lots, the city will now have the ability to charge up to $25 per day during peak times in the summer tourism season. Previously, the maximum daily parking fee was capped at $20 for the lots.
The city is also raising the charge for parking meters in the Boardwalk and beach zones from $1.50 per hour to $2 per hour.
Parking meters in the downtown zone will now go from 25 cents per hour to 50 cents per hour.
Originally, representatives of the Downtown Merchants Association told Council in March that higher rates at the downtown meters would help to create more parking spots for shoppers. As it stands now, the inexpensive downtown parking rates encourage retail workers, residents and non-shoppers to grab the spots, they said.
But after giving the idea further thought, the association was worried that shoppers would be turned off by having to pay for parking during the off-season. Those fears led to the association asking Council to rescind the proposal for year-round parking meters downtown.
Councilman Tom Rotondi suggested that the city should study ways to enforce the existing three-hour parking limit at the meters to create more turnover in the downtown parking spots.
“Why not have it stop at three hours?” Rotondi asked. “It solves a big issue.”
In response, City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson assured Rotondi that the city is “absolutely” looking at ways to enforce the three-hour parking limit.
In other business Thursday, Council introduced a nearly $29.8 million bond ordinance to fund an array of projects throughout town, including road construction and drainage improvements to reduce flooding on the island.
In all, about $16 million will go toward road, drainage and flood-mitigation projects, Chief Financial Officer Frank Donato said.
Other big-ticket projects included in the bond ordinance are improvements to the Boardwalk, beach replenishment, upgrades to the firehouse on 46th Street, construction of a new shuffleboard building and elevator repairs at City Hall.
Donato said the bond ordinance will also finance the designs for a proposed $4.2 million renovation of the Richard S. Grimes Field athletic complex, downtown streetscaping, citywide landscaping and new tennis courts on Fifth Street, among other projects.