Three weeks ago, when free evening parking kicked in for downtown Harrisburg, restaurateurs weren’t sure what to expect.
Would free dinnertime parking make any difference—would it bring customers back? Or would it be a false hope, a pricey lead balloon?
The early reviews are in, and they’re encouraging.
“The two past weekends, we’ve showed strong numbers—much stronger than before,” said Nick Laus, owner of two downtown restaurants, Cork & Fork and Burger Yum.
Beautiful spring weather may have contributed to the flock of diners, Laus said, but he believes some of the credit lies with the free daily parking after 5 p.m., which began on April 2, from State Street to Chestnut Street.
“I do believe it has helped,” he said. “It’s brought people back downtown.”
Down 2nd Street, restaurateur Steve Weinstock told a similar story, reporting an increase in business for his establishments, Stock’s on 2nd and Carley’s Ristorante.
“It’s been a couple of weeks, and we’ve definitely seen an increase in happy hour and early dinner,” he said. “Customers are thrilled about it (parking).”
The issue, Weinstock said, is more complex than patrons simply not wanting to pay $2 an hour, the previous rate for street parking from 5 to 7 p.m. Some customers, especially older ones, were uncomfortable with the digital meters, he said, while others were scared off by the possibility of a $30 ticket.
“I think it’s more the issue of dealing with the machines and the aggressive ticketing,” he said.
Next door, Brian Fertenbaugh, owner of Café Fresco Center City and Level 2, agreed that the issue has been bigger than needing to pony up a few bucks to park. He believes that people found the meters to be intimidating and difficult to use compared to simply pulling into a space in a surface lot in the suburbs. The mobile app was supposed to help solve this, but it’s proven to be unreliable, he said.
“It’s just been inconvenient,” he said. “Now that it’s convenient to park on 2nd Street, I believe it’ll turn around.”
Still, it may be awhile before people permanently shake off three years of bad publicity and bad experiences, he said.
“I think it will take some time,” he said. “I feel like downtown Harrisburg will become an option again.”
Todd Vander Woude, executive director of the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District, said he heard positive things among his members at a recent board meeting. His group led the effort to raise the $270,000 necessary to pay Park Harrisburg/SP+ for the loss of revenue during the 5 to 7 p.m. timeframe for a year, contributing $50,000 towards the effort.
“I would have to say that everything is going well,” he said. “As we get into it a little bit more, we’ll have to see what difference it makes number-wise.”
Laus and Weinstock both said that they hope the negative narrative surrounding going downtown has eased as the parking barrier has been removed.
“It really affected us for three years,” Laus said. “Now, this last couple of weeks, judging by the numbers, people are really coming back.”