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Looking for parking solutions

It would be hard in such a brief space to enumerate the problems that beset downtown Suffolk. From limited retail choices to the decrepit conditions of many of the buildings along Main Street and Washington Street, from the proximity of some of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods to the traffic problems caused by ill-timed lights and too many railroad crossings — sometimes it seems as if downtown businesses and those who promote them are fighting a losing battle.

One of the biggest problems those businesses face, however, is parking. Street-side parking near Suffolk’s retail and restaurant locations is severely limited — and, especially on Washington Street, it often contributes to both traffic nightmares and dangerous conditions for motorists and pedestrians.

There’s a whole separate type of frustration that comes with finding a parking ticket on one’s windshield after parking in a two-hour spot in one of the city’s lots and then returning three hours later, after a meeting or court date ran long. Or the reverse frustration that restaurateurs and retail operators have when they see city employees use up all-day spaces located near their businesses, while their customers have to walk long distances from the poorly placed two-hour spaces that are left over.

Foot traffic is vital to a vibrant downtown area, and accessible and easy-to-find parking is the key to getting people out of their cars, circulating on the sidewalks, looking into storefront windows. People who have to circle the block multiple times to find a parking space are more likely to give up and go home — or go on to do their shopping or dining elsewhere.

Judging from the discussion during a meeting Wednesday of the Downtown Business Association, Suffolk’s department of economic development has recognized the problem with downtown parking and has begun to take some promising steps toward addressing it.

Economic Development Director Kevin Hughes told members that the city might take a small step to re-shuffle some of the two-hour parking spaces in its lots to make them more accessible to the nearby retail and restaurant establishments. That’s a good step.

Perhaps even more important is the call for feedback from the public in advance of a study of possible solutions that could be even more wide-ranging. Improved signage could help out-of-towners find the existing lots more easily, and a crackdown on locals who may have learned to scam the chalk-mark system used by parking officials to track vehicles parked in the two-hour spaces could help improve accessibility.

Suffolk must do what it can to promote and protect its downtown businesses. Providing adequate parking gives downtown visitors a good place to stop, and that makes it a good place to start for economic development officials who seek to encourage the growth of the downtown corridors.