AIKEN - Marty Sanford has been waiting patiently since 1993 for Aiken city officials to solve the problem of limited parking downtown.
The owner of Sanford-Oakes Ltd. might have gotten her wish Monday had Aiken City Council not voted unanimously against buying a .31-acre tract on Richland Avenue to develop into a parking lot.
Council members weren't happy with the owner's asking price of $110,000 for the property. The appraised value was $85,200.
The city is looking at other lots to develop including a former gas station at the intersection of Hayne and Park avenues, a lot behind Aiken Drug and a lot beside Newberry Hall on Newberry Street.
Although she's pleased that city officials are taking strides to develop parking spaces, Ms. Sanford questions why they've waited so long.
"The city has neglected to recognize the growth potential of the town and hasn't made the plans it should have to acquire property for parking," said Ms. Sanford, adding that the lack of parking has put a damper on her business. "There is no municipal parking here. That's a rarity."
Not so, said Sam Erb, chairman of Aiken's Downtown Development Association.
"Our downtown is small compared to a lot of cities that put in these municipal parking lots," Mr. Erb said. "The city's concern is that they don't want to take up too much of an area that could be used for taxpaying merchants to move in."
Mr. Erb said the city doesn't have a parking problem, but "a parking management problem." He said employees and merchants need to work together to park in designated areas and free up parking for customers.
According to a most recent study done on downtown parking in 1985 by the city's planning and community development department and engineering department, Mr. Erb is right.
The main problem for downtown is a lack of convenient parking, the study found. The solution to the problem is to relocate storefront employee parking and maintain the existing policy of free customer parking in the downtown, it added.
Mr. Thompson said the main area of the city's parking problem spans a block and a half down Laurens Street from the New Moon Cafe in the 100 block of Park Avenue.
Aiken's parking woes started up again last summer when business owners complained of losing customers because employees took up parking spaces.
A parking committee formed by downtown development sent letters to all downtown businesses asking the employees not to park in front of stores on Laurens Street but instead along the median on the street and behind stores.
Mr. Thompson said some employees are still parking in the center median and other locations, but some have moved back onto the streets.
He said he's concerned that employees at downtown stores won't use the parking lot if the city purchases property to develop one.
"If the city builds a lot we want a commitment from the employees (of downtown businesses) that they'll use these lots," Mr. Thompson said. "People don't like to walk two blocks to a store. If we put in lots, will people use them?"
Tim Webb thinks so.
The employee of Malia's Restaurant and the Aiken Antique Mall, both located in the 100 block of Laurens Street, said he often hears customers complaining about not being able to find a place to park.
"(A parking lot) would be real helpful," he said. "Then when people do come downtown they won't be reluctant to shop down here."
Willie Bush, a consistent downtown shopper, agrees.
"It's difficult Monday through Friday and Saturday to find a (parking space) downtown," Mr. Bush said. "Sometimes I don't ever get a (space) so I leave."
Lee Taylor, part owner of Lionel Smith LTD, agreed that a parking lot would be an improvement, although he said his business hasn't been hurt by the lack of parking spaces.
"Sometimes we've had problems with customers parking, but that's just because it's busy," he said. "It's not as big a problem as people make it out to be."
Mr. Erb said limited parking is a problem that a lot of cities Aiken's size would love to have.
"There are a lot of towns in South Carolina our size that would love to be in our position," Mr. Erb said. "Our downtown's not dying. It looks great and it's going to look better. This is a good problem."
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