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Parking is even more limited on the square during the Athens Storytelling Festival this week.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Parking is even more limited on the square during the Athens Storytelling Festival this week.

Athens square parking struggle
Merchants seek more spaces for customers

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

ATHENS — It's free!

Yes, you can park for free to eat, shop, get a haircut or go to court in downtown Athens.

Parking time is limited to two hours on the courthouse square, but there are parking lots with 10-hour limits, and all of them are free.

The area needs more, however, than just free parking, according to storeowners.

Downtown merchants want customers to get the prime parking on the square, but that's not happening.

Merchants told city leaders Thursday that their employees and courthouse employees move their vehicles every two hours to different parking spots to avoid a ticket. That takes up prime spaces for customers.

Rainy-day problem

On rainy days, merchants and employees don't have to move their vehicles at all because the traffic control officer uses chalk to mark car tires and keep up with time limits.

"She doesn't do that when it rains, so nobody is moving their cars," said Derrick Young, owner of U.G. White Hardware.

A City Council committee is working to improve downtown traffic flow for vehicles and pedestrians and to get employees and merchants to use parking lots.

Classic Closet owner Lori Gish said safety is one reason merchants park close to their stores.

"In one month, I paid $60 in parking tickets," she said. "After closing, I don't want to walk a long way to my car with money. It's just not safe."

Skipper Consulting is working on a traffic plan for the city to make downtown traffic flow easier and make the area safer for pedestrians.

Public Works Director James Rich and Skipper consultant Mickey Hall gave city leaders suggestions to improve the parking.

Those suggestions are:

  • Provide maps to merchants that show public spaces and lots.

  • Post signs that alert motorists to free parking areas.

  • Search for funding and grants to pay for paving and aesthetics.

  • Work with the county to update county and city parking lots, add greenery and add lights to make them safer.

  • Designate spaces in each parking lot for merchants.

    n Do a cost plan on converting the square to one-way traffic like squares in Lawrenceburg, Pulaski and Fayetteville, all in Tennessee.

  • Once the square is one-way, convert the parking spaces to 90-degree angles to get an additional 58 spaces.

  • Plan to buy available property downtown for future parking.

    "You need most of your spaces west of the railroad tracks that run through downtown," Hall said.

    That's because as many as 43 trains travel on those tracks through downtown on a given day, Rich said.

    "This is actually a good thing you are having to deal with because it means growth is going on," Hall said.

    Gish and Regina Crawford, owner of Crawford's, said they are regularly getting customers from Giles County, Tenn., Rogersville and Hartselle.

    Councilwoman Milly Caudle said that's good news for the city but those visitors need to be able to find parking without the hassle.

    Hall's research shows that peak time for downtown parking is 10 a.m. with 388 of the area's 727 spaces taken. At lunch, 361 spaces are taken.

    "The problem is people aren't going to walk more than five minutes to get to a downtown store," Hall said. "They'll walk through a parking lot at a mall, and then have to walk around the mall to get to their store, but they won't make that effort downtown."

    Rich said pulling merchants and their employees and courthouse employees and jurors out of the prime spots and into the updated parking lots would open up prime spots for customers.

    Rich will present a detailed parking plan to the City Council at its Nov. 19 meeting.

    The suggestions and a map of downtown will be available online by later next week, he said.

    The city's Web site is http://ci.athens.al.us/

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