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Friday, June 14, 2024

Council discusses parking problems in downtown Ocala before opening up dozens of reserved spaces to public

Parking Lot 7 in October 2020
Parking Lot 7 in Ocala, Florida. (Staff Photo)

City officials agreed to open a parking lot that was formerly reserved during the day and split spaces with the Marion Theatre in an effort to increase the number of publicly available parking spaces in downtown Ocala.

During its meeting on Tuesday, the Ocala City Council agreed to a series of changes that will expand public parking options in downtown Ocala.

The lots in question are both along SW 1st Avenue: Parking Lot 7 is situated at the roadway’s intersection with SW Broadway Street, across from the District Bar and Kitchen, while the Marion Theatre parking lot is situated at the roadway’s intersection with West Fort King, across from La Cuisine and Mellow Mushroom.

While Lot 7 previously required a permit for daytime parking, the Marion Theatre lot was previously restricted to staff and visitors of the theater. The lot, which features 20 spaces, will now be split, with at least 10 of the spaces designated for public use.

During Tuesday’s meeting, councilmember James “Jim” P. Hilty, Sr. originally requested that the parking resolution be removed from the consent agenda for discussion. Hilty, who represents District 5, took exception to the spaces that would be designated for use by employees of Marion Theatre.

“You’re taking up ten spaces that are pretty valuable to all the retailers that surround that parking lot for a movie theater that we all love but is totally underserved,” said Hilty. “Those 10 spaces could represent a lot of revenue to the four retail stores that surround that parking lot.”

Hilty said it didn’t seem like a “smart move” for the city to lock the spaces up.

Rachel Fautsch, who spoke on behalf of the city, explained to Hilty that the city was under contract with the theater and did not have authority over any of the spaces.

“Right now, contractually, the theater has access to all 20 spaces in that lot. It is technically their lot during the day and not a public lot,” said Fautsch, who works in the city’s Grown Management Department. “Those 20 spaces are the theater’s spaces, so this is opening 10 spaces up to public parking, and still allowing the Marion Theatre staff and the [Reilly Arts Center] staff to access the parking, which has been an issue.”

Fautsch said that theater staff members had been complaining of not being able to park next to the facility because the public was using the lot without permission.

In response, Hilty doubled down and suggested that there were multiple other businesses being adversely impacted by the theater’s reserved spaces.

“That’s a lot of revenue lost to the businesses downtown that have to pay high rent, taxes. And we’re leasing the theater for minimum, so to me, it doesn’t make sense,” said Hilty.

Councilmember Jay Musleh reiterated that the changes were an improvement on the current contract.

“Right now [the parking spaces in the lot] are locked up by the Marion Theatre. They would have every right to refuse parking to anybody, right?” asked Musleh.

Fautsch agreed and reassured the council that the contract with the theater could be discussed as the landscape of downtown continues to change.

“As downtown is evolving, especially as businesses come online in the area, it would be wise to review that contract,” said Fautsch about the theater’s contract, which is scheduled to renew in 2026.

Council President Pro-Tem Kristen Dreyer felt the theater should be acknowledged for giving up spaces even though they weren’t contractually obligated to do so.

“It should be acknowledged and appreciated that they’re giving us those ten spots. I don’t see any problem with this,” said Dreyer, who represents District 4.

After additional discussion, Hilty continued expressing concern at the lack of awareness about the parking problems downtown and their impact on local businesses.

“I just want to get some discussion going on it, because there is a problem downtown and nobody seems to realize it,” said Hilty. “And I’m not talking about one spot, I’m talking about all the retailers down there are starting to have an issue with people not being able to park.”

Both Dreyer and Hilty suggested that they had seen Lot 7 underutilized on a regular basis, with Dreyer citing a recent visit to District Kitchen and Bar. Both councilmembers were perplexed as to why it would remain private during the day.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Dreyer about the lot.

Fautsch said the city was going to issue termination notifications to break contracts and get the ball rolling on a 45-day process to enable Lot 7 to be used “in the next month-and-a-half” as a first-come, first-served lot until the pay stations arrive.

Now, approximately $20,525 will be appropriated to purchase three MacKay Tango meter pay stations for the lots. The city says two of the pay stations will be used at Lot 7 and the Marion Theatre, but that they will take approximately “6 to 8 weeks to deliver.” City staff says they should be available for the next fiscal year.

According to the city, the conversion of Lot 7 to a “paid public lot” at the “current parking rates” could generate an “estimated revenue of $21,060,” assuming a 50% capacity. Currently, the estimated annual revenue for that lot is $8,640, according to the city.