Guest column by Carol Johnson: Parking in downtown Amherst must put customers first

  • Marquee on the front of the Amherst Cinema Building. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Each red dot represents a member of Amherst Cinema. Submitted map

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

As the Amherst Town Council, town manager and economic development director review the recommendations of Nelson/Nygaard Consulting about parking in downtown Amherst, Amherst Cinema fervently hopes they will hconsider that a number of the consultant’s recommendations are misguided and would be bad for downtown.

Background: Amherst Cinema sells about 110,000 tickets a year (an average of more than 2,000 tickets a week). We offer programs on four screens 365 days a year. Our patrons come from a 25-mile radius — not “just” from Amherst. The accompanying map shows where Amherst Cinema members live. Each red dot represents an Amherst Cinema member. Clearly, most of our patrons are driving here, so clearly, parking is important to our patrons — and to us.

Customers vote with their feet. People have many choices about how and where to spend their leisure time and money. This is not just a theoretical perspective. People often live and work in one town or city and travel throughout the Pioneer Valley for other activities. People really need only one bad experience to decide they are never coming back.

Amherst needs parking that can be easily located, that is consistent across downtown, and that can be easily communicated. Here are several points we’d like to make:

■ Amherst needs more visible signs (and better online info) about how to find available parking, and more clarity about what the parking rules are throughout downtown.

Amherst should stop charging for parking at 6 p.m. (not at 8 p.m., as recommended by the consultants). A 6 p.m. end time is the overwhelming preference of businesses and visitors. Let’s listen to them.

■It makes no sense to adopt a graduated pricing scheme that charges visitors more per hour the longer people stay downtown. We want people to come to Amherst and to stay — for dinner, shopping, a movie, a concert, a visit to the common, a meeting, a visit to the library or a museum, etc. We should be welcoming visitors and providing a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

■A patchwork of “public/private partnerships” that would govern use of private parking lots spread throughout downtown would be complicated and confusing. We can make valuable improvements if we keep things simple.

For example, let’s make better use of on-street “permitted” spaces, which restrict parking from September through May from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Why not add a sign on the posts for permitted parking (and add info online) that says something like “Free at other times”?

There is no need for the on-street permitting system to be extended year-round.

People love vibrant downtowns. Let’s work to keep Amherst’s downtown both interesting and welcoming!

Carol M. Johnson is the executive director of Amherst Cinema.