A Surprise In Downtown Hartford: Let Us Pay For Your Parking
Hartford Parking Authority Seeks To Put Friendly Face On Meter-Readers
By JENNA CARLESSO
March 08, 2013
HARTFORD —— Sean Crawford spotted a man walking toward a parking kiosk on Pratt Street Friday and headed straight for him.
Crawford, a parking ambassador contracted by the Hartford Parking Authority, said people typically get nervous when he approaches. But on Friday he had good news.
"Allow me to pay for your parking," he told Jeff Alquist of West Hartford, who had stopped in the city to have lunch with his wife.
"We're only going to be here for 15 to 20 minutes," Alquist replied.
"How about I give you an hour?"
Crawford and the authority's five other parking ambassadors will randomly select as many as 20 people a day this month and offer to pay for their on-street parking.
Parking authority administrators said the program, Park On Us, is meant to increase traffic to businesses, encourage on-street parking and counteract negative perceptions of the parking ambassadors, who also hand out tickets for exceeding meter time or not paying for parking.
"A lot of people think we're out there to alienate or target them," Crawford said. "When they see we're giving them free parking, they think it's cool."
The approach is the latest step in the authority's efforts to improve its relations with those who park in Hartford.
Visitors and business owners downtown over the years have complained of overzealous meter police and a lack — or perceived lack — of convenient and affordable parking.
But the authority has sought better community relations, running parking incentives in recent years that allowed people to park for free on certain days and granting a fourth free visit to anyone who parks three times in a city garage.
Last May, the organization selected a new company for parking enforcement whose workers are trained in customer service. It also changed the name of its meter police from "parking enforcement officers" to "parking ambassadors."
"We thought, how do we put a happy face on parking?" said Terry Leonowicz, director of revenue control and marketing promotions for the authority. "We're trying to change the perception."
Since the Park On Us program began, "there's been a general pleasant-surprise kind of reaction," she said. "People say, 'You mean you're not going to give me a ticket today?'"
Mark McGovern, the parking authority's chief executive officer, said the organization continues to encourage friendlier outreach. Parking ambassadors have handed out change to people who are short a few coins, made change for people carrying only bills and left money at downtown businesses for customers who need help covering meter costs.
"They're trained to be friendly, help with directions, provide change if it's needed," McGovern said. "It's meant to create a better relationship on the street between parkers and ambassadors."
The Park On Us program was initially rolled out in December, under the radar, to gauge public reaction, he said. It resumed again on March 4.
"The reaction was very positive, in some cases, shocking," McGovern said. "People were pleasantly surprised."
The goal is to have a different city business sponsor the program each month, he said. This month, City Steam Brewery Café contributed $720. In addition to free parking, those randomly chosen will receive coupons for dining at the restaurant.
"It's a really unique and personal way to promote ourselves," said Conor Geary, City Steam's marketing director. "I know there's going to be a person on the other end of this transaction learning about City Steam. It's a guaranteed impression. And [the parking ambassadors] are perceived as good stewards of Hartford, rather than tax collectors."
McGovern said he hopes to make Park On Us an ongoing program. The authority is seeking sponsors for additional months.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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