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Retailers fear more parking restrictions will drive away customers

June 13, 2024
By Anna Ridilla

Amid the parking discussion that is once again dominating Boca Grande, many in the commercial district are concerned about how they might be affected by proposed parking limits. 

Last Tuesday, June 4, Commissioner and Vice Chairman Kevin Ruane brought a “Commissioners’ Item” to the regularly scheduled meeting, detailing his plan to work toward a parking plan for Boca Grande. 

The preliminary plan that he outlined last week in an email to the Beacon, includes a tiered parking program; 2-hour parking limit in the commercial district; limited use of the Gilchrist median for parking; limited or prohibited parking on East Railroad north of 5th Street; and additional signage and fines. The motion and second were adopted 4-0 for Ruane to begin working with county staff on a plan which will eventually be brought back to the Lee Board of County Commissioners for a vote.

One controversial item in the preliminary plan is the possibility of two-hour parking in the commercial district. Shops in Boca Grande seem to have a similar consensus: two-hour parking would not be long enough, and the lack of public restrooms is perhaps the more pressing issue for stores downtown. 

Kim Newlin, of Newlin’s Mainely Gourmet acknowledged that employees often take up much of the parking space downtown. In talking about issues she personally faces on a daily basis at her building on 4th Street, Newlin turned to the lack of public restrooms downtown, mentioning that she lets people use her bathrooms all day. 

In terms of the Gilchrist median parking, Newlin pinpointed the main problem to the months during season. “The problem is really in the winter months,” she said. “If you go to Gilchrist now, it’s like tumbleweeds.” 

Newlin lives on Park Avenue and was told years ago that they couldn’t plant anything in the right-of-way outside of her house, so she expressed confusion over the fact that so much on Gilchrist Avenue is allowed to be planted out in the fashion she had requested for her own house. 

“Why not have parking in front of people’s houses if they don’t want them parking on the median?” Newlin added.

Ruth Amen, from next door at Ariel Ltd. expressed her concern for employee parking if time limits were enforced.

 Above, parking on a quiet day in front of Newlin’s before hurricane Ian. At top, a busy day just up 4th Street in front of Fugate’s. Diagonal parking is efficient in allowable spaces for parking. Note that one issue not discussed, but a factor, is the much larger size of cars, trucks and SUVs in recent years.            File photos

“We’re concerned because we park wherever we can find a spot, usually across from the Anchor Inn,” Amen said. “It’s hard to carpool in because not everyone has the same hours or lives in places that would make sense for that. We don’t know what a solution would be, but we’re open to hearing ideas – maybe limited parking that is longer than two hours?”

Visitors often park in front of Ariel and go across the street to get golf carts at Boca Grande Cart Rentals, Amen said. “They have a fleet of 30-40 golf carts, and they’re not required to have parking spots.”

Sisters Restaurant is one of six locations in Railroad Plaza located on East Railroad Avenue. This strip of stores has a parking lot on either side, with room for about eight cars in each. In that block, the historic railroad building is extremely generous with all its parking. Indeed across the island, many of the businesses actually share their parking spaces with other businesses, and any pressure with on-street parking will put pressure on those lots.

“You’re lucky to find a spot in those parking lots during season,” said Savannah Morgan who works at Sisters. “Employees park across the street.” 

Morgan hopes parking isn’t limited further, she said. “More employee parking would be nice.”

Those at Barbara Anne’s Jewelry and Boutique on Park Avenue are concerned that two-hour parking will hurt business in Boca Grande, adding that it will drive tourists away.

Dina Beaumont, who owns Sunsets of Boca Grande next door to Barbara Anne’s, is against adding any new rules or regulations to parking downtown. 

“How does it help the businesses to have a two-hour restriction?” she said. “We want to welcome day trippers and tourists and beachgoers … Are employees going to have to move their cars every two hours?” 

Fugate’s, on the corner of 4th Street and Park Avenue, reposted a parking story on Facebook from last week’s Beacon, writing, “Before you ask, as a local business, we have not been contacted by anyone in reference to this matter.” 

The post from Thursday, June 6 continues: “It is completely unacceptable to block someone’s access to their home or use their property as a restroom or enter their home. Sometimes a few bad apples ruin the bunch. On a personal note, it might be beneficial to have easily accessible public restrooms & garbage cans in town that Lee County might provide staff to maintain.”

Nikki Heimann, who is the manager of the Pink Pony on Park Avenue, has been more concerned about the issue of restrooms, as they have one of the only public restrooms available for use downtown. 

“People definitely disrespect our bathroom,” Heimann said. Indeed in a quick survey of town businesses and the issue of parking, bathrooms actually came up as a repeated organic complaint.

The Boca Grande Community Center on First Street has men’s and women’s restrooms that are all ADA accessible, but visitors don’t tend to use these as the center is several blocks down from the main shopping area. There are also bathrooms at the Lighthouse and Gasparilla Island State Park, and there is a new bathroom planned by the state of Florida at Sea Grape access to the park, just north of Boca Bay’s Powerhouse.

The next Lee County Board of Commissioners meeting is next Tuesday, June 18, but as of press time there is nothing related to parking in Boca Grande on the official agenda.