BELLEVILLE — City officials told downtown Belleville merchants Tuesday they're trying to enforce parking meters and address parking availability issues without turning off shoppers.
Downtown business owners were concerned after the city stepped up parking enforcement downtown this summer by issuing more tickets for parking in loading zones, expired meters or having the car too close to the curb.
Coupled with a lack of parking downtown, merchants said customers might be weary of downtown Belleville.
Belleville Police Chief Bill Clay told about 20 business owners at a meeting on Tuesday that a middle ground is for the city to issue courtesy parking violation warning notices.
Clay said he is already having the city's community service officers issue such warnings and he wants feedback from merchants on whether this compromise is working.
The warnings are logged, so officers know if they're dealing with a repeat offender, Clay said.
"I'm not saying it solves all of our downtown parking problems, but it's a start," Clay said.
Officers will also have more discretion now in issuing tickets, Clay said. For example, if an officer starts to write a ticket for an expired meter and sees the driver returning to the meter, the officer could simply ask the driver to pay the meter.
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said the city is merely looking for compliance of city parking laws -- not to make money or punish those who visit downtown. He's against raising parking violation fines.
"Our goal is really your goal: I don't want parking to be something that detracts from your business," Eckert said.
Eckert said parking availability is an ongoing issue, but it's a good issue to have because it means downtown is thriving.
For now, the Bank of America and Market Square buildings are not full and the building at 222 E. Main St. is empty, Eckert said. But, he added, as the economy improves and the city attracts more business, the city will "be hurting for parking" once 80 percent of the city's empty buildings are occupied.
Demolition of the building at 18 S. High St., which housed the Sukha Yoga Center, will occur in a matter of days, Eckert said. The city bought the building from John Conkright, owner of Ben's, in July and will use the space to add 35 parking spots to the existing lot.
The city will also continue to look for more property downtown to create surface parking lots, Eckert said.
Conkright said that on many days, even before he opens his store, the public lot at High and Washington streets behind his building is completely filled with vehicles of those who visit the St. Clair County Building.
The city needs to somehow get those visiting the courthouse to park elsewhere, Conkright said.
Here are some suggestions from the meeting on how to improve the parking situation:
* Have business owners remind their employees to park further away from Main Street to leave prime spots for customers.
*Assess whether the city's existing lots are adequately serving users. For instance, should the 1-hour parking spots actually be 2-hour spots or 10-hour spots?
* Better mark meters with enforced hours.
* Have downtown employees purchase a $12 per month parking pass to park in the city's 10-hour lots.
* Businesses using loading zones should indicate on their vehicles that they are associated with a downtown business so they're not ticketed.
Renae Eichholz, owner of Precision Practice Management, said that it might help those who visit downtown on the weekends or for festivals to know they can park on private lots of businesses that are closed.
Not all businesses would want that, but those who do so will give visitors more options to park. Eichholz said she plans on modifying signs on her parking lot at 218 W. Main St. to clarify what hours the lot is open only to her customers.
She said the city also could clearly mark lots with "Event Parking" signs during gatherings like the Chili Cook-off.
City officials also went over the city's ordinance on panhandling and offered tips on how businesses could address solicitors.
Clay said people have panhandling rights but there are restrictions as to when and where it could occur.
The city prohibits panhandling between sunset and sunrise, at festivals and other city-sponsored events, on parking lots, at bus stops, 20 feet from automated teller machines, at sidewalk cafes and more.
Eckert said the concern is that panhandling could lead to crimes like carjacking. Business owners who experience aggressive panhandling should immediately report such incidents.
"It's not a crime to be poor," Eckert said, "but to put people on the spot or in dangerous situations when people are getting out of their vehicles or while they're sitting on bumpouts having dinner with their families -- this stuff cannot be permitted."