EDITOR’S NOTE: Contributing Columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insights on various topics in Marketplace column.
A public hearing last week with Fernandina Beach city commissioners over parking obviously involved very little hearing, as in listening.
The contentious meeting, attended by about 30 residents, was intended to measure the public’s feelings about paying to park at city beaches. Of the 15 or so people who spoke, 12 vehemently opposed the idea — or about 80 percent.
In response, city officials (some of whom hardly paid attention) will move ahead with the proposal, designed in essence to charge visitors to use our beaches. Talk about a disconnect between politicians and public opinions.
If the hearing was truly designed to solicit public response, it could not have been more one-sided with opposition. The raucous crowd appeared agitated and outspoken about a proposal that continues to resurface in various forms.
After loud applause for a resident who opposed the idea, the mayor threatened to have a police officer forcibly remove anyone else who clapped or spoke out of turn. So much for free speech.
One business owner told commissioners to “come take my keys” if they ultimately decide to charge for parking in the Main Beach area. The preliminary plan would involve paid parking there, as well as at most beach accesses within the city limits.
The premise is to use kiosks, instead of individual meters, to accept the parking fees. City officials seem to be attracted to the idea because it could generate some $400,000 in new fees (although this was only a guess). However, there are many unanswered questions about administering and enforcing the plan.
A presentation by the city police chief detailed how the plan would work. It even targeted an amount for tickets to be written to violators. While the primary intent would be to defray beach maintenance costs by charging visitors for their usage, there was also discussion about assessing an annual fee to residents.
The timing of the hearing was ironic. Just a week ago, a noted speaker was invited to town to address methods to invigorate the downtown area. The speech was targeted at ways to attract more tourists, support businesses, and improve the economy.
An initiative to charge tourists to park at the premier destination on the island is a misstep in this direction. This was hardly the advice they had received. Another concern is that the pay-for-parking system along the beach may be expanded to other areas, like downtown. And, most likely, the fees would steadily escalate over time.
Look no farther than St. Simon’s Island to see the outcome of such a program in a tourist destination. Meters were installed along Mallory Street and several side streets in downtown St. Simon’s Island in the mid-1990s. The program lasted only a few months due to a reported public outcry. The meters were promptly removed.
City officials need to redirect their efforts away from cultivating new revenue sources – and instead adopt a mindset of invigorating our economy through initiatives for new businesses and more tourism. Hopefully they’ll listen to this advice.
(Steve Nicklas is a financial advisor who lives on Amelia Island. He can be reached at 904-753-0236 or send eMail to [email protected])