Affordable parking in downtown Portland has become so hard to find, the city’s flagship theater company worries that people may stop attending its plays.

“It’s having an impact, and a devastating one,” said Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage Company. “Parking is the primary complaint that we receive.”

Parking challenges haven’t caused a drop in ticket sales – yet, Stewart said. But they have cost time and energy and distracted the theater from its other work since nearly all of the surface parking lots in the neighborhood were turned over to new private management last year. Dealing with those complaints has become a primary focus of the theater since the fall, as it tries to appease longtime subscribers while helping them navigate the new landscape of Portland parking, she said.

Portland Stage opened a new play last week, “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods.” Before each performance, Stewart or the house manager will warn audiences that parking policies are changing and the flat-fee policy in place for years at the surface lot nearest the theater no longer applies. It’s now an hourly rate, which means parking may cost twice as much as it did last season, and people who don’t pay for enough time in advance risk having their vehicles booted.

Other arts groups are dealing with similar complaints about parking, but the problem may be most pronounced for Portland Stage, because so many parking lots in the neighborhood are now manged by Unified Parking Partners. Unified operates about 40 lots and garages in Portland, including five pay-and-display lots in the immediate vicinity of Portland Stage. It has faced widespread criticism since it began operating in Portland in 2014 for what critics call aggressive and predatory enforcement practices.

HELPING THEATER FANS ADJUST

Managing parking, and the anger associated with it, is a new wrinkle in Portland Stage’s audience outreach efforts. That means helping ticket-holders understand the changes so they can adjust their routines and avoid the dreaded boot.

Ed Friedman of Bowdoinham got the boot when he attended his first show of the season at Portland Stage in the fall. He pulled into the lot near the theater off Forest Avenue and expected an attendant to take his money. There was no one there, and he didn’t notice any signs directing him to a self-pay kiosk. When he came out, he had a boot.

He complained to Portland Stage and to Unified. He got a refund from Unified, as did a half-dozen other patrons who received a boot that same night. “I didn’t see any sign that said I needed to do anything different,” said Friedman, who now arrives early before a show to look for street parking. “I got very upset about it. It left a very sour taste in my mouth.”

Portland Stage Company says its patrons aren't typically urbanites and aren't always comfortable with parking downtown. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Portland Stage Company says its patrons aren’t typically urbanites and aren’t always comfortable with parking downtown. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Unified’s managing partner, Dan McNutt, said his company is working with Portland Stage and its patrons to lessen confusion about the new policies, and is staffing the lot on Forest Avenue on nights when Portland Stage has shows to help people pay the proper fee. Unified also has added several signs explaining the policies and directing people to pay stations.

“We want to make sure that all the folks who attend enjoy their night out,” McNutt said. “We are supportive of the arts, and we feel Portland Stage brings an incredible service to the community. We are working with them. We want a good partnership with Portland Stage. They generate a lot of great business for us.”

Stewart said the parking situation has improved since the fall, and she credited Unified for staffing the lot to help people understand the changes and navigate the self-pay machines, which can be confusing to use. But parking remains the biggest complaint in customer surveys, said Portland Stage General Manager Megan Doane.

“We’ve gotten to a relatively steady rhythm at the moment, but that doesn’t mean people don’t still complain about the price and the fact that it is an hourly rate instead of a flat rate,” Doane said. “Coming early to secure a spot now means they have to pay more.”

‘WE’RE BECOMING LIKE BOSTON’

In three years, the cost of parking in the lot closest to the theater has increased from a flat $5 fee for the night to $7 nightly and now to $3.50 per hour, or $14 for four hours, about the amount of time necessary for dinner and a show. The theater seats about 290 people.

In the larger view, Stewart worries that parking has become so costly in Portland that it will change the character of the city and deter people from coming downtown. She suggested that the city explore establishing low-cost parking lots along the perimeter of the peninsula with shuttle buses to bring people into the Arts District.

“I wish the city would get on top of this,” she said. “I think there is room in Portland for free or very low-cost parking. We’re becoming more like Boston or New York. We’re not Portland anymore.”

Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of the arts agency Creative Portland, said parking affects more than arts groups. There’s an impact on every business, large or small, in the downtown, she said.

“It comes up in many contexts all the time. It’s the No. 1 issue: Where do you park in Portland? It doesn’t matter what group of people you’re talking to, it always comes up,” Hutchins said.

LESS IMPACT ON OTHER ARTS GROUPS

Parking affects Portland Stage more than Portland Ovations or the Portland Symphony Orchestra, two other organizations that present arts performances, because of the theater’s location just off Congress Street and the nature of the parking choices near the theater. Portland Symphony presents nearly all of its concerts at Merrill Auditorium, which is close to two large surface lots that charge flat fees on performance nights. Portland Ovations presents some of its shows at Merrill, as well as Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland and other venues in Portland and Westbrook.

Ovations Executive Director Aimee Petrin said she is monitoring the situation at Portland Stage. The primary complaint she hears from Ovations ticket holders is the lack of consistency in parking fees.

“One night they come to Merrill and parking costs one amount, and another night they come and it costs a different amount. They don’t understand why, and we don’t understand why,” she said.

On the other hand, she’s also heard from ticket holders who appreciate attending concerts at Hannaford Hall because of the convenience and cost of parking at USM. It’s free.

“Parking is one of the major attractions for patrons who attend concerts there,” Petrin said. “They tell us all the time. It’s free, it’s covered and it’s convenient.”

Like Stewart, Petrin rejects the argument that people have to accept changes in the parking situation as a consequence of a city on the rise. Convenient and affordable parking are essential to Portland’s future, she said.

“People have to have the ability to park. This is still a commuter city. People are not reliant on public transportation. People rely on their cars,” she said. “At Portland Ovations, we could not (survive) with just the folks who could walk to our events. They have to be able to park, and it has to be affordable.”

Portland Museum of Art leaders have long talked about a desire for better parking close to the museum and have begun preliminary internal discussions about building a parking garage. Through its website and other communications, the museum directs visitors to various public lots close by on High, Free and Spring streets.

MONITORING EFFECT ON TICKET SALES

Meanwhile, Portland Stage patrons are adjusting their theater-going habits. Bonnie Wright of Westbrook got a boot in the Unified lot during the first show of the season at Portland Stage. It won’t happen again, she said, because she refuses to park there.

“We try to get there a little early, and we drive around the neighborhood trying to find parking. But it’s hard,” she said. “Sometimes you just don’t want to walk if it’s pouring out.” Parking has made attending plays less convenient and less fun, she said.

By spring, Stewart will have a better sense of whether the increase in the cost of parking will result in a downturn in ticket sales. Spring is when subscribers decide to renew their season tickets. The theater has received hundreds of complaints in audience surveys collected via email about parking, and many said they were considering giving up the theater as part of their entertainment options. One person complained that “only the super rich” will be able to afford the cost of the show and parking. Another said poor lighting in the Unified lot caused them to overpay.

“Will rethink visiting Portland because of this,” said one theatergoer who cited the anxiety-inducing threat of the parking boot.

That kind of feedback is troubling to Stewart and Doane, because Portland Stage can’t do much to solve the parking problems other than inform its customers of Unified’s policies and act as a liaison. Despite the changes Unified has made, Stewart said, the situation is distressing.

“The new system is for people who are used to living in urban areas,” she said. “It was not designed for our 60-year-old-plus audience base, who are used to seeing a friendly face, giving them a couple of bucks and then parking.”