Business owners ‘fed up’ with traffic, parking issues

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

What is being done to improve the parking and traffic situations in downtown McDonough?

That question is on the minds of many local merchants who turned out last Thursday night for a City Council work session whose agenda included a discussion on the topic.

“I’m fed up with the inaction on this,” said Neil Daniell, owner of Kirby G’s and head of the local merchants association. “It seems like we’re not getting anything done.”

In a PowerPoint presentation at the council meeting, Daniell cited repeated studies conducted between 2004 and 2012 which seem to have resulted in little action. In a recent event survey of downtown businesses, one-third of the comments were negative ones referring to parking and traffic.

“They’ve [merchants] been talking about it for years,” said Daniell. “The inaction is hurting business.”

His presentation included this quote from the 2013 Downtown McDonough Urban Redevelop-ment Plan: “Businesses downtown have to work harder at generating sales to justify rent payments, all while dealing with greater real difficulties in attracting customers to the Square due to real or perceived issues with traffic, parking, and pedestrian access.”

Critical transportation issues cited from a 2004 study include traffic congestion, poor street connectivity, truck traffic around the Square, lack of safe bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure, inefficient use/shortage of downtown parking, few sidewalks or paths around schools, and no pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure at railroad crossings.

Eight years later, a 2012 study identified strengths and weaknesses of the parking situation. It concluded that while there appeared to be enough parking spaces downtown and the meters in place encourage turnover to allow more motorists access, there was a lack of signage and a poor job was being done promoting the parking availability and rules. A specific example was the assertion that many people did not know parking is free on the weekends or that the parking garage behind the court complex even existed. Another problem cited was the fact that the meters only accept coins, which can be a challenge for motorists who carry little cash.

According to the study, some felt that enforcement of parking rules was not consistent ... everyone was not treated the same, with officials at times being ‘quick to ticket.’ The parking deck, which was built by the county mainly to help with parking for those going to and from court, was called “first-class” but a bit too far from the Square.

The most recent measurement of merchant satisfaction, an event survey conducted earlier this year, revealed that the two largest customer responses were about traffic and parking. The chief complaints were over-enforcement, not enough signage, not enough parking, lack of a shuttle, traffic congestion, and parking meters.

Here is another quote Daniell used from the 2013 Downtown McDonough Urban Redevelop-ment Plan:

“The boundary of the McDonough Downtown Devel-opment Authority shown above is a logical choice for the city’s first redevelopment area. Years of disinvestment has left Downtown McDonough a shell of its former self. After diligent study of this area by qualified urban planners, economic development specialists, and city staff, and building upon the findings and conclusions of related studies, such as the Livable Centers Initiative conducted on behalf of the Atlanta Regional Commission (including studies of the exiting residential, retail and office market, and related parking inventory) the Commis-sion finds the area designated meets the criteria of a ‘slum area,’ as defined by statute.”

According to Daniell, the overwhelming attitude among business owners is one of frustration at the city’s perceived inability to get moving and address these issues. The suggested action plan included in his presentation listed increased investment in the downtown district; adding parking spaces and handicap spaces; updating the enforcement system to add the use of credit and debit cards; and implementation of a shuttle system. Other suggestions included the addition of ‘free parking’ and ‘no parking’ signs where needed as well as painted ‘fire zones’ to stop haphazard parking.

“I know the wheels of government turn slow,” said Daniell. “It seems like in McDonough they turn slower than slow. They’ve lingered so long that it’s created a big mess; it’s falling down around them.”

He added that some local property owners can be part of the problem, specifically those who are not improving their property and letting it languish.

The situation could get dire enough that he and other business owners have to take a serious look at whether it is profitable to remain downtown. Daniell said he has been approached by outside people who assure him that his business could triple if he moved.

“If something doesn’t change, there is no reason for me to stay because I’m hurting my business,” he acknowledged.

But he has gotten the sense from this most recent meeting that city officials are beginning to see the urgency. Councilman Craig Elrod, who introduced the topic at the meeting, thanked Daniell personally after the meeting for his presentation and later said that he felt the discussion was a positive one.

“We wanted to get everybody on the same page,” said Elrod, referring to the merchants, city officials, the new Downtown Development Authority and other parties. “I think we accomplished that.”

Elrod noted that different business owners will have different opinions on the issue depending on the type of business, and he acknowledged that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“We have to continuously work on this,” he said, noting that the Square itself changes over time. “There are now seven restaurants on the Square. In the next 10 years it could be different.”

During the period the various studies were conducted there were some city staff changes, he said, and some of the studies were done when the economy was “absolutely booming.” More recently the city had to focus on just keeping things moving while property values plummeted during the economic downturn and there was virtually no money for the city to get a lot of things done.

“When there are good businesses on the Square, people will find a way to get there,” said Elrod. “We need to keep our focus on helping these businesses be successful and give people a reason to come.”