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Marliyn Murray pays for parking

Marliyn Murray pays for parking using the city's new digital kiosk system downtown on Wednesday, July 17.

The city of Helena says it is still refining parking downtown and rolling out educational materials after several businesses voiced concerns over new parking meters and kiosks.

The city began discussing downtown parking in 2014 after the Business Improvement District came forward and requested a change in parking due to employees taking up customer parking spots. In 2016, the city decided to go forward with electronic kiosks and meters like Missoula and Billings at the cost of $500,000. The new devices offer the ability to pay with a credit card as well as a new smartphone app the city hopes to roll out soon.

Six weeks ago the new kiosks went live, and although the city has instituted a grace period with no tickets, some downtown Helena business owners are concerned about frustration they're hearing from customers.

"People are very annoyed," said Lindsay Barnes, owner of the General Mercantile on Last Chance Gulch.

Barnes regularly sees people struggling with the electronic kiosks set up on the street, saying, "There's a lot of complaining and dissatisfaction."

For a business model that largely relies on selling a cup of coffee for $1.75, the new price of $1 per hour for parking means the product really costs $2.75, Barnes said.

"It's a big deal for me," she said.

Barnes and several other business owners are asking that the city go back to the old, first hour free parking for much of downtown Helena that was in place until the kiosk change. Eli Eller, owner of the No Sweat Cafe, agreed with that request.

"It can all be solved pretty easily, if people use the app, then they get an hour free," Eller said of the throes of annoyance he has heard by Helena citizens and tourists.

Eller said he was less worried about his business during the summer, when tourists buoy the amount of customers who come through the door, than the winter when Helenans are his main source of revenue.

"That's when I worry about the parking," he said.

Compounding the issue is that the app has been delayed multiple times due to issues with the app-maker. In public city meetings, city manager Ana Cortez has expressed the city's dissatisfaction with the app's implementation. At the July 10 city administrative meeting, she said the city has been considering possible legal action against the app-maker. The city has chosen not to enforce the parking ordinance while the app is down, and has decided not to ticket anyone until the app is running.

But people are still using the kiosks even though the city is not ticketing.

At that same July 10 city administrative meeting, Cortez said the city had made some $25,000 in kiosk fees in June, under the $29,000 revenue goal the city had set for the month. That money will go to the parking fund, she said, which is one of the pots of money the city is hoping to build up.

Cortez went through the number of ways the city has reached out to people about parking: offering key chains where they can write down their license plate numbers, potentially putting pencil and paper at the kiosks, monthly permit purchase options and tokens called Goldie coins for people who don't carry change.

The city is also offering free first hour parking at five lots downtown: the lot behind Bert and Ernie's on Jackson Street, across from the Chamber of Commerce on the west side of Cruse Avenue, the lot across from the Lewis and Clark Libary on the west side of Park Avenue, and the 6th Avenue and Getchell Street garages.

Recently hired public information officer Rebecca Connors said a city intern had been gathering feedback from downtown business owners about the parking issues and stressed the city was going to use that feedback.

"Our geography is different than Billings, Missoula or Bozeman," Connors said. Because downtown Helena is in a literal gulch and not set out in a more standard grid formation, she said the city is considering changing how it charged for parking with a premium section in the more central downtown areas charging more per hour and an economy section farther out.

"If you think about it as a heat map, you'd have premium parking there (in the Gulch) and as you got farther and farther away, if people want to pay less and walk more they can do that," Connors said.

That proposal is still up in the air however, and would require the city to change its ordinances.

"You know, most private organizations can turn on a dime and make quick decisions, our process is a little more bureaucratic, a little more fragmented," Connors said.

"We have to work with our commission, look at our ordinances," she continued. "We're going back to look at where we are and what we can and cannot do."

But there is still concern among some business owners about communication from the city and that the new kiosks are hurting businesses.

Bethany Flint, a managing partner at Blackfoot River Brewing Company, said the amount of issues that cropped up during the kiosk implementation were frustrating to a lot of people who came into the brewery.

"Tons of people in the Blackfoot are frustrated," she said.

Flint said the city had not talked to business owners before rolling out the plan.

"Lots of people don't know about it," Flint said. She added the city had told her it had been discussing the issue of parking for a while, including it in the master plan in previous years.

"Who reads the master plan?" Flint asked, but said she still has hopes for the kiosk plan and general implementation of the new system.

"The kiosks are really going to be good," Flint said. "There is just not a lot of good communication about the parking change."

Flint was concerned about the fact the whole system was not working before it was put into effect and that the city was taking in money even while it wasn't ticketing.

"It seems a little disingenuous to charge people when they aren't ticketing," Flint said.

Not all downtown business owners expressed the same issues with communication.

Riley Tubbs, a co-owner of Ten Mile Creek Brewing, said the city had been "really good" at listening and reaching out.

"Helena Parking has done a great job of responding to the phone calls, helped us with our concerns and helped with the current situation," Tubbs said.

Tubbs felt the city had been working with businesses.

"They're actually listening to us," he said.

The city has reached out to business owners in recent weeks, with Dave Hewitt, the director of Helena Parking, taking the lead on meeting with business owners. Eller and Barnes said Hewitt had responded to their emails very quickly.

Connors added that Hewitt had helped create several interactive videos explaining how to use the new kiosks and meters that would run on television. The city has also handed out explanatory pamphlets to downtown businesses to display on their front counters.

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Crime and Health Reporter

Crime and health reporter for the Helena Independent Record.

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