Amherst Chamber urges town to rescind new downtown parking changes

  • Amherst Cinema and other downtown merchants are say that an expansion of parking enforcement hours from 6 to 8 p.m. is having a negative effect on business. The Amherst chamber is urging the town to reconsider forcing people to pay during those extended hours. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2018

AMHERST — As a regional destination for cinephiles, the Amherst Cinema gives patrons an opportunity to enjoy Academy Award-nominated films in a downtown location near restaurants and shops.

But there is growing concern that moviegoers might stay away, because they now have to pay for on-street parking until 8 p.m.

“The vibrancy of the cinema depends on people having a thoroughly enjoyable experience, not having to worry about where to park or about getting a ticket,” said Carol Johnson, executive director of the cinema.

The situation that it and other businesses are facing has prompted Peter Vickery, president of the board of directors for the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, to send the Downtown Parking Working Group a letter asking it to recommend rescinding the change that went into effect last fall, extending meter enforcement from 6 to 8 p.m.

“The longer enforcement period has generated considerable irritation on the part of shoppers, diners and patrons of the Amherst Cinema, all of whom have a choice as to where to shop, dine and seek quality entertainment,” Vickery wrote in the letter to the working group, which examines parking policy and makes recommendations to the Select Board.

In a phone interview, Vickery said “8 is too late” and noted anecdotes of customers upset because they have gotten tickets.

“Downtown merchants right now are reporting a deterrent effect,” Vickery said.

The option for many visitors isn’t whether they will walk, bike or use public transportation to get to downtown Amherst, but whether they will instead head to Hadley, where parking is free at malls and restaurants, or Northampton.

Once deterred from coming to Amherst, it can take a long time to win them back, Vickery said.

Select Board member Connie Kruger, who chairs the working group, said the extended enforcement period is on the list of actions to review, but probably not until March.

The concept was part of a demand-based pricing strategy that encourages turnover of spaces, especially at peak times.

Kruger said studies have shown that 7 p.m. is one of the busiest times in downtown Amherst because of the popularity of dining destinations.

“We were actively trying to improve parking for people who want to shop and dine,” Kruger said.

But people who come to the Visitor Information Center, where the chamber and the Amherst Business Improvement District are located, are also adding their voices to those who dislike the new rules.

Jerry Guidera, the Chamber’s interim executive director, said one problem is people are not accustomed to feeding meters after 6 p.m. Other downtowns where parking is charged, such as Northampton and Greenfield, stop enforcing meters at 6 p.m.

“It’s inconsistent with what our regional economy is used to expecting,” Guidera said. “People don’t expect to feed a meter when they’re here for dinner.” Similarly, the Amherst BID is getting calls and emails complaining about parking, Executive Director Sarah la Cour said.

La Cour added that the Amherst BID had concerns from the outset about having meters match the enforcement times in the Boltwood parking garage.

Johnson said she understands that parking is tight in Amherst, and a vibrant downtown depends on sufficient parking. She argues the town should look to Northampton, where a parking garage is not only an affordable option, but there is no risk of getting a ticket.

She observes the cinema is in its busiest season, with many traveling from as far as Vermont and Connecticut to see films nominated for Oscars, so it is hard to quantify the impact of the changes.

“Our point has always been that extending hours disproportionately affects restaurants and the cinema,” Johnson said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.