Downtown Charleston restaurant workers who have to pay to park during their shifts might not catch a break anytime soon.
The city of Charleston's Restaurant Employee Discount Pilot Parking Program that allowed restaurant workers to pay a $5 flat rate to park in certain garages is expiring Sept. 5, eliminating one of the only affordable parking options for those in the food and beverage industry.
The city aims to make up for it by offering $5 flat rates to anyone parking after 5 p.m. at four downtown garages, but restaurant industry leaders say that won't help much since most employees report to work much earlier than 5 p.m.
"I guess it’s nice for people going out to dinner, but it doesn’t help the people cooking the dinner," said Jessica Slaughter, director of administration for Fig and The Ordinary.
She said many employees of the fine dining restaurants begin work as early as 8 a.m., with the last shift beginning around 3 p.m.
Many workers carpool, walk or bike to work to avoid parking fees. But for those who live further away on James Island or in West Ashley and North Charleston, it's not uncommon for them to have to drive to work and pay up to $15 a day to park in a nearby garage.
"The $5 parking program has been a great option for them, even if they don't use it every day," Slaughter said. "It was something."
ABM Management, the company that manages the parking garages that participated in the pilot program, notified restaurant owners and mangers of the program's conclusion in an Aug. 2 email.
Josh Martin, an adviser to Mayor John Tecklenburg, said last month the city will look for new ways to help hospitality workers get to and from their jobs downtown when it conducts a large parking study for the peninsula in the next few months.
In the meantime, the city will offer $5 parking from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. at the Visitor Center Garage at 63 Mary St., East Bay Garage at 25 Prioleau St., Majestic Square Garage at 211 King St. and the Queen Street Garage at 93 Queen St.
City Spokesman Jack O'Toole said all the parking garages downtown offer a combined 6,000 spaces, but most are leased on a monthly basis, leaving about 1,800 spaces for daily use.
About 7,700 hotel and restaurant employees work downtown, according to the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis. Its recent survey found that about 80 percent of those workers drive to their jobs.
“Our parking garages simply don't have the capacity to solve this problem on their own," O'Toole said.
The city is working with the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority and the Charleston Convention Center and Visitors Bureau on a plan to set up park-and-ride lots on the upper peninsula to shuttle employees to and from work.
"Our goal is to have a long-term solution by the end of the year," said City Councilman Mike Seekings, who is also the chairman of the CARTA board. "Whether we can put in some short-term solutions to help before then remains to be seen. We’ve got some work to do."
O'Toole said hospitality workers aren't the only ones affected by the problem.
"Parking is an issue for people who work in all sorts of businesses downtown," he said.
Katie Mallory, who works in retail on King Street, said the city has never helped retail workers afford parking downtown.
"With the CARTA buses, even the DASH bus isn’t on time enough to count on," she said.
Daniel Brock, spokesman for CARTA, said the bus system has recently improved its reliability in that area. Buses stayed on schedule 91 percent of the time in July, he said.
Even so, Mallory said many stores in the popular shopping district downtown have a harder time finding part-time workers than other shopping areas with ample parking options.
"I think it’s a disadvantage for us because it’s harder to find workers who are willing to deal with the parking situation downtown," she said. "If you’re at Mount Pleasant Towne Centre, there’s no problem with parking."
Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill, said he's concerned for the restaurant industry but also for the peninsula's economy.
"The city is becoming a place where hourly wage workers cannot afford to work in," he said. "There needs to be and there has not been a solution to a problem that’s only getting worse."