OPINION: Free parking for much of the Nelson city CBD over winter is a bold and significant move.
The city council's decision follows the release this month of first-quarter retail spend figures showing a drop of 5 per cent in Nelson city and huge growth - 14 per cent - in Richmond.
Long simmering pressure from some inner-city retailers also has come to a head this month. There has been angst, too, since the council contracted out parking enforcement. Councillors clearly felt they had no option but to respond - and they have. For that they are to be congratulated.
Their move is decisive and timely. Nelson winters are tough for many businesses. In offering free parking subject to existing time limits in the CBD from tomorrow until September 30, the council has essentially given retailers all they could have hoped for.
The council has also responded to concern that the private wardens have been targeting vehicles with overdue registration and WOFs. Tickets issued for these offences have leapt by 93 per cent over the past three years. The contractors are now issuing reminders when they notice stickers that are nearly overdue. This is a positive move that should help reduce the "bad-cop", revenue-hungry reputation the wardens currently have.
No doubt the council will monitor the change carefully. They have been careful to label it a trial, and chief executive Clare Hadley has rightly warned that the council must be prepared to shut it down early if there are negative, unanticipated consequences.
One risk is that inner-city workers will fill many of the parks and spend their breaks moving around in order to avoid tickets. The initiative is expected to cost $200,000 or more. Any loss of revenue is of concern, and must be made up somewhere. Perhaps this is most positively seen as an investment in the future viability and vibrancy of the city.
The public should be aware that existing time limits still apply. The 141 metered parks on Trafalgar St and 37 around the outside of Wakatu Square have one-hour limits, Bridge and Hardy Sts have two-hour limits and the Montgomery and Buxton Square parks are for up to three hours.
People exceeding these times Monday to Saturday during the day will be ticketed - and fair enough too. The bulk of Wakatu Square will remain as all-day, metered, parking.
Previous councils have resisted moves towards free parking (other than free-Tuesday trials over the last three winters) on the grounds that meters are necessary to keep people flowing in and out of town. The standard model across much of the Western world is for main cities to have paid-for parking and suburban areas, malls etc, to offer free parks.
This winter, Nelson will try a new approach and it will be fascinating to see how it works - and whether the initiative will be as successful as retailers are hoping. They too must play their part in helping to make the inner city an exciting drawcard. Parking availability is just one small part of the recipe for a successful city.