PORTLAND – Sage Eskesen, who owns Se Vende Imports on Market Street, said her customers have seemed more anxious about avoiding parking tickets since the city eliminated its parking ticket forgiveness program on July 1.

She said she has lost business because customers have raced back to their cars to feed parking meters.

“It was horrible the city gave it up,” she said of the program. “A lot of customers are afraid of the meters expiring. The ticket writers show no mercy.”

Still, it’s too early to tell whether the program’s elimination has hurt downtown business, said Joe Redman, who owns Joseph’s, a clothing store in the Old Port.

Redman, the chairman of the parking committee for Portland’s Downtown District, was a strong supporter of the program and was critical of City Manager Joe Gray’s decision to cut it to fill a $520,000 hole in the city’s budget.

Although merchants were unhappy with the decision, he said, the program’s elimination hasn’t generated complaints or caused merchants to lose business.

He said the flood of summer tourists makes it difficult to tell how the program’s elimination will affect his business with local residents.

The program, which let people avoid paying one parking ticket every six months, was created in 1994 to help downtown businesses compete with suburban shopping malls. It also was a goodwill gesture by the city, at a time when downtown Portland was struggling.

An expired meter — a $15 fine — could be forgiven. But other, more costly violations — such as parking in a handicapped zone or in front of a fire hydrant — could not.

Based on the number of tickets forgiven in past years, the city estimated that eliminating the program would bring in an additional $520,000.

According to the most recent available statistics, the city received $127,700 from parking tickets in July — an increase of $11,200 from July 2009. But it’s impossible to determine how much of the new revenue can be attributed to the forgiveness program’s elimination, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

She said this summer’s beautiful weather has brought many more tourists to the city. Last summer was so cool and wet that fewer tourists visited, producing a dip in parking ticket revenue from July 2008.

Also, many people don’t pay their tickets right away, and instead wait for the city to send them a letter.

So a large portion of the revenue in July was from tickets written in the spring, when the forgiveness program was in effect. “One month doesn’t really tell us much,” Clegg said.

Still, she said there’s no reason to expect the city’s revenue projection will fall short, because it’s based on a historical data.

The ticket forgiveness program wasn’t the city’s only tool for helping the downtown compete with the malls.

Many merchants participate in the Park & Shop promotion, offering any shopper a free hour in a public garage with a purchase at a downtown store.

Drivers who park in a garage or a lot and take their ticket with them while shopping can get a stamp with each purchase that’s good for one hour of free parking.

Besides stamping garage tickets, Cross Jewelers began giving customers little packages this summer containing four quarters for parking meters.

The gesture is good public relations, said Karen Pride, vice president of marketing for the store on Congress Street.

“When we say, ‘This one is on us,’ it brings a smile to their faces,” Pride said. “As downtown merchants, that is exactly our job, to entice people back and say Portland is a real friendly city.”

The city’s parking forgiveness program was also good public relations, and Pride hopes the city will bring it back some day.

Denise Cole, co-owner of D. Cole Jewelers on Exchange Street, said the parking ticket forgiveness program helped establish Portland’s reputation throughout New England as a friendly city.

“Now,” she said, “it’s taking away from the friendly factor.”

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]