Judging by the response heard by some city officials, the new paid parking rules in downtown Stillwater are about as popular as a flat tire.
The police chief said he's heard the complaints, a city council member said one person told him they'd never shop in town again, and the mayor said he's seen social media posts about "greed, greed, greed" after the city this month started charging for some parking spots that used to be free.
The complaints may be coming from only a few vocal critics, and some of it is probably social media noise, but City Council Member Mike Polehna said he was surprised.
"We give more free parking than anybody!" he said.
That's the rub: The city still has lots of free parking for anyone willing to walk a block or two to get to Main Street — and Main Street itself is free for stops up to 30 minutes. Sixty percent of all parking remains free, according to the city.
Somewhere along the way that message was lost as the city introduced a new Passport parking system like the ones used in Hudson, St. Paul and elsewhere to charge drivers who want to park close to the river.
Mayor Ted Kozlowski said some of the response may just be confusion about how the new system works. He was planning this week to make his "third or fourth" Facebook post about parking, hoping to clear the air. "The main thing I want to get across to people is the whole idea here is that this is flexible," he said. "None of this is set in stone."
(His preferred spot: one block west of Main Street at Chestnut and Second streets, a free lot where Shorty Cleaner Launderer, aka Shorty's, used to be.)
A tourist town with a complicated geography, Stillwater has a limited amount of parking downtown and can't easily add more due to the river to the east and steep hills in every other direction. A parking study in 2020 found the city could improve parking availability if visitors who planned to stay for two hours or more would park two to four blocks from the center of town.
That meant changing people's behavior, and "the only way you can adjust behavior is by having enforcement, and by having to pay for parking," said Kozlowski.
The city now charges for most spots east of Main Street between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. Drivers can use the Passport app or one of several credit card kiosks to pay. Free parking is available west of Main Street, whether it's on-street parking or the surface lots along Second and Third streets.
Tim Gladhill, director of community development, said the new system appears to be functioning as planned, at least from a technical standpoint.
"We are pleased with the initial rollout," he said. "We are seeing a little bit of change in parking behavior that are freeing up spaces for our shoppers."
The city's cost for maintaining parking is expensive — it just made a six-figure repair to its Second Street parking ramp. The revenue from the new paid parking system won't cover those maintenance costs, Kozlowski said, but every bit helps prevent the city from passing on costs to homeowners in the form of higher property taxes.
"There's no free parking," he said.
The city last year determined it lost about $50,000 per year on downtown parking spots spread across 18 surface lots and the Second Street ramp. The roughly 2,000 spots were mostly free, with about a quarter charging $3 to $5 for 12 or more hours. The new system introduced this month converted about 15% of those spots to paid parking, for a total of about 40% of all spots, Gladhill said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Kris and Lewie Rustad were taking in the view from a bench on the city's new Chestnut Plaza. They drove their 1940 Ford Coupe to Stillwater and chose to pay for a spot near the Historic Lift Bridge.
"One dollar an hour is pretty reasonable," Kris Rustad said.
Using the parking app meant the city could install a few signs and kiosks, rather than hundreds of parking meters or other fixed infrastructure. It's all flexible, said Kozlowski, and the city wants to see how the new system works out before making any necessary changes.
"I want to ask people to be patient as we figure this out," he said.