Parking lots have a lot to do with economic recovery. Really.
That's the message an estimated 1,600 people will share in Denver during the International Parking Institute's annual conference May 17-20.
With the recession shrinking city budgets that rely on sales tax revenue, the institute's 1,500 members are getting attention for what they can do to get more shoppers and diners in and out of busy parking spots and, in the process, spending money.
The industry generates an estimated $26 billion to $28 billion a year in parking revenue, up from more than $12.5 billion in 1990, according to the parking institute.
"When you're talking about economic stimulus, especially in downtown, or an amusement park, or a hospital setting, they bring a lot to the conversation," said Shawn Conrad, executive director of the Fredericksburg, Va.-based Institute.
For instance, rail stations may need more spots for commuters to leave their cars as mass transit gets a boost from federal stimulus money. Colleges whose students now include workers looking for new job skills are seeing more demand for parking.
Jerry Roper, head of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said parking has a huge impact on economic development.
"It's so big in cities the size of Chicago and New York that in some cases the planning departments are requiring any new development to have 'X' amount of parking spaces to accommodate either residents or customers," he said.
Some cities, such as New York, are testing higher parking fees at peak times to keep turnover healthy and to encourage use of mass transit.
Chicago has leased its parking meter system to a private operator in a 75-year agreement raising more than $1.1 billion to help it weather a tough economy. The deal hasn't exactly charmed residents though, who have seen rates in some neighborhoods quadruple from 25 cents to $1 an hour. In the Loop downtown, the hourly rate rose from $3 to $3.50.
Chicago taxes collected by businesses that manage parking also have risen. Aldermen have proposed eliminating the tax in parts of downtown on weekends to encourage shopping, dining and theatergoers in the central business district.
The industry hasn't escaped the slump. People don't drive or go out as often. When they do, they'll look harder for cheap parking. A few lots in downtown Denver have trimmed their daytime rates, in one case from $8 to $7.
"We have to be really concerned with pricing, being sensitive in that area," said Scott Bauman, manager of parking management at the Colorado Convention Center, which is hosting the conference. It costs $10 per space in the center's 1,000-spot garage for eight hours.
Many attendees will walk from nearby hotels, so hunting for a parking spot shouldn't be a problem, Bauman said.
"I'll definitely have room for all of them," Bauman said.
The institute formed in 1962 but has earlier roots in Detroit. Parking troubles in the Motor City were rising as people bought more cars, and in 1953 the municipal parking authority sought help from what became the National League of Cities. That group set up a committee to specifically study parking, eventually evolving into the institute, whose members hail from 18 countries.
They include suppliers and operators who manage anywhere from a few hundred spaces to more than 100,000 at airports, sports arenas and more. The institute also has a program to certify administrators of public parking.
The 2009 convention will include sessions on collecting fees by phone, credit cards and online; managing congestion; and awards for garages that aren't eyesores. And there will be tours of local parking facilities.
It all comes a little more than 50 years after a Denver symphony violinist and high school shop teacher, Frank Marugg, invented the tire-clamping Denver Boot for parking scofflaws.
When it comes to anger and vitriol over parking tickets, Clancy Systems International Inc., which sells the device, has seen it all.
Among printable examples offered by the Denver-based firm, there was the woman who wrote, "I hope you run out of gas soon," and the guy who apparently used his ticket as toilet paper before mailing it in.
"You would be shocked at some of the language that is used and the attitude over a $15 ticket," said Liz Wolfson, a partner at Clancy Systems. She said the company sells about 1,000 Boots each year.
Obscenities in the memo lines of checks written to pay off tickets are frequent, Bauman said.
"'(Expletive) off and die.' 'Enjoy this in your grave.' Those are always popular ones," Bauman said.