Free parking downtown means anyone can park anywhere, for pretty much however long they want. So, when Fannie Dorlon needs spaces for her bands to load and unload their gear, there’s nary a spot to be found.
“I don’t want to cause a problem, but I have bands with equipment weighing upwards of 200 pounds. Their equipment is expensive, and they don’t want to carry it around or get it wet,” Dorlon told the Canton town board at a meeting last week.
Dorlon aired her concerns over what to do when there is no room on Main Street for her booked music acts to haul their gear to and from the venue.
“When the bands say, ‘You’ve got to do something or we’re gone,’ then this is a major problem for me,” Dorlon said. “I either have to get the space for them or I’ll have to go somewhere else to run this business.”
Dances at the parlor are held from 7 to 10:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday.
“I think we just mark off the [parking spots] during her unloading hours or just let them park in the left lane,” Canton Mayor Mike Ray said. “This shouldn’t be a difficult situation.”
Interim Town Manager Jason Burrell felt it wasn’t that simple. Technically, downtown parking has a two-hour time limit between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. But it’s based on the honor system. Cops don’t patrol for parking tickets.
“Your issue is a parking enforcement issue,” Burrell said.
If the town wants to start enforcing the two hour limit, it should do it throughout downtown, not just in front of the dance hall, he said.
“We’ll see if we can go up there and talk to them for your purposes. But personally, I’m not going to something for this person or that person unless I can do it for everybody,” Burrell said.
Dorlan claimed that parking spots on Main Street in front of her dance parlor are continually taken by business owners and their employees, with the Mexican store Mi Tierra and Penland’s Furniture Galleries being specifically named.
“The people that run businesses downtown have that whole block used up,” Dorlan said.
The problem is not unique to Canton. How to stop downtown employees from hogging prime parking spaces is an age-old problem in small towns around the mountains, with strategies varying.
Some towns rely on peer pressure, with friendly reminders sent out in the newsletters of the downtown merchants association. But since most small towns have free parking downtown — designed to encourage tourists to loiter, shop and spend — there’s not a whole lot a town can do to motivate a change in bad parking habits barring a more iron-fisted approach.
Both Sylva and Highlands have an ordinance that prohibits those who work downtown from parking in prime customer spots during key business hours. Violators can be ticketed. Both towns are small enough that beat cops can spot the telltale signs of the same vehicle parked in off-limits customer spots day after day. Merchants also report each other if necessary. According to the Sylva town manager Paige Roberson, the ordinances are doing their job in keeping the parking issue at bay.
Several years ago, Waynesville implemented a three-hour parking limit along Main Street, complete with signage to deter merchants from sitting on spots all day. But its enforcement is sporadic, since the police department lacks a full-time employee dedicated to chalking of tires and writing parking tickets. During peak tourist months, however, a greater effort is made to monitor the time limits.
Where to go?
Following the Canton meeting last week, Gerald Penland, owner of Penland’s Furniture Gallery, echoed Dorlan’s sentiments that something must be done about the parking situation downtown. But, he also was unaware of Dorlan’s personal concerns towards his business.
“She’s never come and complained to us. This is the first I’ve heard about it,” he said. “We have two furniture stores right here and no unloading zone. It would be wonderful if the town put in a loading zone into their plan.”
Across the street, Otilia Aleman, manager of Mi Tierra, said she and her employees do not park on Main Street.
“We don’t park there because sometimes people want to come to our store and they need this parking,” she said.
Dorlan suggested that business owners and employees should not park on Main Street. She pointed out nearby parking lots that should be used by the businesses, which would leave downtown spots open for consumers and those loading and unloading for momentary needs.
“I’ve heard that this has been going on for years and that people would be surprised if I got anything done about it,” she said.
“I think most people need to do a little walking anyway, so I don’t see a problem there,” Ray responded.
Alderman Zeb Smathers felt the current parking plan should be reevaluated to make sure special events are not only taken notice of, but also taken care for. He felt the specific need of the parlor should be addressed, with the larger issue of a town parking plan figured out in the future.
“We would need to add a clause to our ordinance for special needs and special occasions, to work with the police department with some latitude for these events,” he said. “As of right now, after 5 p.m. it’s fair game.”
“We can’t just make an exception for one person,” agreed Alderwoman Carole Edwards. “We have to be fair.”
The board decided to address the parking issue at a later date when all parties involved could discuss their needs, and after all downtown businesses were personally spoken to about the subject moving forward.
“We need to go by each business and not just send them a letter,” Ray responded. “We need to speak to someone face-to-face rather than by a letter. I think we need a better rapport with our businesses.”