Sunday, October 7, 2007

Parking fees too high? Read this.

Saturday, October 6, 2007. Greenville, North Carolina. College football game, East Carolina University's Pirates vs. University of Central Florida Golden Knights. Final score, 52-38 ECU. Supposed to be a great game.

USA Today's coverage of the game

Too bad I'm not into sports. I didn't watch it, but I do work in Greenville, so I had to deal with the traffic. In fact I work very close to the stadium. Almost close enough to hear the game. But not quite.

I'm sure ECU tries to provide ample parking, some of it free and some of it paid. College games, I do know, cost less to attend than NFL games, so I'm sure the parking fees are a bit less. I could not find on the ECU website the prices of parking. Maybe there aren't any, but for the sake of argument, let's put it at $10. Ten bucks to park on the ECU campus within walking distance to the stadium. Also, there is a lot across town that ECU has a deal with, they run a bus to and from the lot every so often, probably the 20 minutes the round trip probably takes, maybe 30 so the driver isn't rushing. Pretty sure the park and ride parking is free, it's just a mall or shopping center lot where all the stores are closed.

The problem with parking downtown, where the stadium is, is local businesses are hurt when people park in their lots and leave their cars for several hours to watch a game. A store stocks up on beer, soda, water, frozen pizzas, whatever people might want before or after the game. Restaurants stock up on supplies as well, since a home game brings a lot of visitors. But then people, residents of Greenville or not, fill these stores' and restaurants' lot up with cars that don't move for hours, and customers have nowhere to park. The businesses lose money - thousands of dollars, in some cases.

What's the cost of a parking space? A store figures a customer who is in the store for 10 minutes spends X amount of money. A customer in the store for 30 minutes spends Y amount, and a customer in the store for an hour spends Z amount. How long does it take to run in and get a case of beer? Assuming the idiot can read and doesn't park in the fire lane (and Greenville is home to a lot of idiots, as evidenced by looking at any fire lane, doesn't matter which one), they might spend 5 minutes in the store, spend $20 on a case of beer, and they're gone, maybe 10 minutes tops. Just on beer, that parking space is worth $120/hour. Now figure the store has 250 parking spaces, that's $30,000 an hour - assuming everyone's coming to buy a case of beer. Of course these figures are all guesses - I don't know that much about the business side of running a store - but at least you can see that if a lot is filled with cars that aren't bringing the store money, the store is losing money as customers go to the competition.

In fact, during one of the last big games Greenville hosted, the store I work at lost thousands. The other businesses in the lot lost a lot, too. So they went to the lot owner and demanded a better solution, so they could profit from the game. The lot owner offered what seemed to be a win/win solution. He posted signs that clearly stated that the lot was for the use of customers only. Then, he told the tenants that he would hire a security guard to patrol the lot, and anyone who parked and headed for the stadium would be warned that their car could be towed if they left it, the idea being that people would find another place to park. Sounds like a great idea, right?

But of course, there's always going to be the idiot, or idiots, who have to test the waters, and that's what I walked into last night at work.

So it's pretty busy in the store, the manager and the other employees and I are all running around like chickens with our heads cut off. We're not understaffed, but due to the volume of business, technically speaking we were.

Next thing I know a young couple comes in, the girl almost in tears and the guy obviously angry. And I'm the unlucky SOB they see first. Apparently they went to a football game, didn't see the signs (or heed the warning), and didn't see the security guard, and thought everything was fine. They get back from the game and their car is gone. Their first thought is that perhaps it was stolen, but then we tell them that the lot owner was having cars towed. So they call the police, they make a few calls trying to find out where their car is and how they can get it back.

Then an older genteman strolls in, at least that's what he appeared to be. He knows his car was towed, he's not as naive as the young couple. He's cussing anyone and everyone out, he's blaming the store because it's the biggest business on the lot and he assumes the store's upper management owns the lot. He knew his car would be subject to being towed, but he thought he'd be smart and park around back, as if the "customers only" rule applied only out front.

I do, of course, sypathize with these people, to a point. They wanted to save ten bucks (or whatever) and park in a store's parking lot. They didn't think at all that they were costing the business any money because they only thought about their car, not realizing what that the mob of sports fans as a whole were doing to the business. They really only thought of themselves and their situation - but that's how most of us are, sometimes. Oh, and the tow fee - $125. That'll put a dent in anyone's pocketbook. If it seems about three times what it should be, consider the tow truck drivers were probably demanding double time to work during the big game. And the old "stupidity tax" idea, you park in front of a sign that says No Parking, maybe you should have to pay a little extra.

Not all the sports fans who parked there were towed. Greenville only has so many tow trucks, and our lot was not the only lot calling them. As it happens, three cars were towed. The third car's occupants came in later: A young black couple and their 3-year-old son. By this point, the first three (the young couple and the beligirent old man) were standing out in front of the store, telling anyone who would listen that the store had their cars towed just because they wanted to watch a football game. Call the police? The police were tied up between downtown and the stadium. I'm sure we could have gotten an officer to the store, but when? And they weren't exactly in the wrong, and desperate. See how rational you are over a hundred miles from home, your car taken away.

This is about where my sympathy for the three of them ended. The young lady found a couple that were headed out that way. A couple driving a big SUV, an Escalade or a Suburban or something. The couple ask "well how many of you are there?" She says just her, her boyfriend, and the old man. Forget about the black couple, forget about the black kid. I don't know if they were racist or just stupid, but then again the family didn't say anything, and the manager and I were in such shock to say anything until they left. We called a cab for the family, though, and I'm not sure if the store picked up the tab or if they got charged.

Oh, and here's a nice little twist. Guess who owns the towing company? You guessed it, same guy who owns the lot. And same guy who was supposed to hire a security guard to keep people from parking there. My guess is the guy told the security guard not to approach people, just to report cars whose passengers went to the stadium rather than one of the businesses, after they departed the parking lot, and then send in the tow truck. Well, he made at least $375 at it, more than I make in a week. Sweet. Or not, depending on how you look at it. But he had his bases covered. He had signs up clearly stating that the parking was for customers only, and that all other vehicles were subject to towing. It's perfectly within his legal right to send tow trucks out there to enforce that. I'm sure the signs cite the specific laws that cover a land owners' right to have vehicles towed at the owner's expense.

So next time you're out and faced with a $10 parking fee, just suck it up, pay it, and be glad you have the convenience of parking closer to the event, as opposed to walking there and back from a store or restaurant, finding your car was towed, spending an hour or two and $125 getting your car back. Paying $10 to park does suck - again, if that's what the fee was - but I think the alternative is much worse.

PS - I'm sure most towing companies are honest, but some are not. My brother had his car towed. After paying to get it out, he found they had broken one of his windows - fortunately, one of those little triangle windows, not a big one - broken in, stolen his CD collection and ripped his CD player out of the deck. He went to the police, I think, but the towing companies have a law of some kind protecting them. I think the honest reasoning is that, if they damage your car while towing it, it's on you for being stupid enough to get your car towed in the first place. But some towing companies will use that law to steal things out of your car, or sabotage it. If that happens, the tow fee is likely the least of your problems.

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