That Free P was a good idea – did it work? Maybe. You will be able to P free in Downtown Burlington every Saturday for the rest of the year.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON.  January 6, 2014

The Free P is over.  You have to put coins in those parking meters today and the rate for that spot to park your car went up 25 cents an hour as well.

Burlington took a brave step when it offered free parkingin the downtown core for the month of December, as part of a drive to entice shoppers to visit the downtown merchants over the holiday season.

Couple of bumps during the first few days when people who work downtown decided they could now park for free and took up many of the spaces that were intended for shoppers.

Free parking ?  For who?

It got so bad the first few days that city manager Jeff Fielding had to send an email to everyone employed by the city explaining the parking spaces were not for city employees but for shoppers who wanted to come downtown.  It wasn`t just city employees abusing the free parking – several merchants were parking their cars in the free spaces.

Ward 2 Councillor Marianne Meed Ward put a lot of her political capital on the line when she pushed for the free parking and the Burlington Downtown Business Association (BDBA)  got behind the idea with everything they had.

Did it work?  It could have and it should have but there is no data so far and without data no one will ever know.  Did the public like the idea?  We don’t know yet.

East side of Brant Street xx days before Christmas 2013.  Not exactly festive was it?  Malls were much better.

Here however is what we do know:  For the second year in a row the majority of the downtown merchants did precious little to decorate their store fronts and give the streets something in the way of a festive look.

The Planning department made a decent effort to make their public counter attractive and festive.

City hall didn’t do much better.  The Civic Square was close to pathetic and inside the building it was as if December was just another month.  There was a tiny little tree beside one of the entrance doors and poinsettia set out around the building.  The people in the Planning department did gussy up their counter a little – they are on the second floor where other than contractors getting permits there wasn’t much in the way of public exposure

Retailers love to see some snow on the ground a week or so before Christmas; that is said to draw out the shoppers.  This year we go snow – we really got snow and icy rain as well those very last few days and then the city moved into survival mode to get through the hard weather.

There is something decidedly unhealthy about the state of retail in the downtown core.  Is it the retailers themselves who just don’t want to put themselves out or is it a leadership problem with no one developing good ideas or programs for the retailers to follow-up on.

The Yellow bags were there for the taking – problem was not that many of them were taken. Good idea badly executed? Or just a bad idea?

The BDBA hopped on a wagon that wasn’t going anywhere when they took part in the Yellow Bag program sponsored by the Yellow Pages people.  The idea had been run in Oakville where it was said to be a mistake.  Based on what we saw in local shop windows it was as bad a mistake in Burlington.

It doesn’t matter how much drive Councillor Meed Ward puts into getting programs that goose up things in the downtown core – it is the merchants who are going to have to make it happen.  And based on what was visible on the streets – it didn’t happen this year.

Did the cash register go “kaching” a lot this year?  Not sure if the merchants will make any of their data available.  Does the DBDA have a data collection program in place that would allow them to publish figures?  We’ve not seen anything coming out of that office.

The city wants to upgrade the parking meters it uses and is having a little difficulty getting that process going the way they want it to go.  Two Requests for Proposals have been issued – both were withdrawn.  The most recent withdrawal was due to some significant misunderstandings between the city and those responding to the RFP.

There is some fantastic technology available now that could tie the parking meters into loyalty programs merchants could take part in – ways for merchants to pay for the parking on behalf of their customers – but all the technology in the world won’t make a difference if the retailers don’t behave as retailers and do some intelligent marketing.

Two poinsettia on a counter do not a Christmas look and feel make.  The city could have put two decent size Christmas trees to the right and left of the reception desk and made it a social evening for staff by having everyone down to the lobby to decorate the two trees.  Civic Square didn’t look all that festive either.

The city has done everything it can to help the downtown core overcome the difficulty parking meters create in the minds of shoppers.  Parking appears to be free at the malls – it  isn’t but it also is not seen as a direct cost to a shopper.

New language was developed to move the focus from the parking meters to the idea that shopping downtown is a destination and an experience – which is great.  But that experience needs wasn’t there last December with retail shops almost devoid of any sense that it was Christmas time.  On that level the malls beat the core.

There is some serious work to be done if this city is going to manage to get its act together and make the downtown core actually work.  We should set aside the word vibrant for the next while because it just ain’t so.


The Free P video – hilarious.

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1 comment to That Free P was a good idea – did it work? Maybe. You will be able to P free in Downtown Burlington every Saturday for the rest of the year.

  • Marie

    I see this often with small businesses. They make no or very little effort to get customers in their stores and then blame the Internet or Walmart when sales are down.