Charleston County weighs parking garage rate hikes (copy)

The College of Charleston's office of Tourism Analysis recently published a survey that found most downtown hospitality workers drive to work and have to pay to park during their shifts. File/Staff

Downtown Charleston is the regional hot spot for luxury hotels, upscale dining and bar-hopping — a major draw for the roughly 5 million people who visit the Lowcountry each year.

But while they lounge in their $300-a-night rooms or indulge in the city's award-winning cuisine, thousands of workers behind the $3.6 billion industry are driving onto the peninsula every day, hunting for parking spots that won't eat up too much of their day's wages.

A recent survey conducted by the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis indicates that about 60 percent of downtown Charleston's restaurant and hotel workers live outside the peninsula, and regardless of where they live, 80 percent drive their cars to work alone.

With limited public transit options and strict street parking regulations downtown, those workers often have little choice but to pay to park in garages near their jobs, which can cost $16 to $20 for a single shift. That's more than two hours' worth of work for those earning minimum wage.

Bryan Getsinger, a 27-year-old James Island resident, is a full-time bartender at Ruth's Chris on Market Street. He said he spends about $60 a week to park nearby.

"I do OK, but not enough to warrant paying $240 a month," he said. "It's absolutely too much."

About 70 percent of the 503 workers the College of Charleston surveyed said they spend at least $25 a month on parking, with about a third paying $100 or more each month. That's including the cost of the citations they get for parking on a residential street or letting the hourly parking meters run out.

The peninsula, only about 8 square miles, has 345 food and beverage establishments and 45 hotels, employing a combined 7,700 people, according to the college.

Those businesses continue to multiply downtown, and at the same time, the cost to live in the area is rising rapidly. So while it might be easier to find work on the peninsula, many won't earn enough to live within walking or biking distance to their jobs.

The bus isn't a convenient option in many cases either because those working in hospitality tend to work later shifts. The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority has two routes off the peninsula that operate past 9 p.m., but they only go to West Ashley and North Charleston. 

There are a few long-term plans in the works to begin addressing the issue.

Mayor John Tecklenburg has promised to provide more affordable housing on the peninsula in the coming years through several initiatives.

City Council passed a new requirement to make future hotels come up with parking or shuttle plans for their employees.

The city also expects to hire a firm in the next month or two to conduct a major parking study for the peninsula, which hasn't been done since 1999.

Josh Martin, one of Tecklenburg's top advisers, said the study will help the city take stock of how many parking spaces are on the peninsula, where new garages might be built and how a park-and-ride system for the peninsula's hospitality industry could work.

He said there could be temporary park-and-ride sites set up on the upper peninsula by the end of the year, with service operated by CARTA's DASH shuttle. The city subsidizes those buses to run free routes in popular commercial areas downtown. 

"It’s already running in the routes where workers are, so we think that would make a lot of sense," Martin said.

More than half the people surveyed by the college said they'd consider parking remotely and shuttling into work, which was the key takeaway for the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, according to Deputy Director Perrin Lawson.

"That’s certainly a positive first step," he said. 

Getsinger, the bartender, said he'd be happy to take a bus to work if buses would just run later.

He'd save a lot of money, and if other workers caught on, there might even be fewer cars on the peninsula's narrow, congested streets every day.

CARTA spokesman Daniel Brock said that's a solution the authority is looking into, and it's part of the reason the CVB asked the college to do the survey.

"It's likely that we'll see some sort of modified service that can be utilized by those in the hospitality industry," he said. "More people are coming onto the peninsula every day, and CARTA is actively exploring options to provide convenient services at times that make sense for the local workforce."

Martin said the city has offered hospitality workers a $5 flat rate to park in the Majestic Square and Charleston Visitor Center parking garages, but that pilot program is ending in the next 30 days. In September, he said, the city will start offering $5 flat fees to anyone parking after 5 p.m. at those garages and two others that haven't been identified yet.

Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill, has been concerned for years about the shortage of transportation options for downtown hospitality workers. He said he's not impressed with the array of plans to help improve the situation because "it's too little too late."

"There's been talk for years about creating outlying parking areas, running shuttles through the downtown area, but nothing has materialized," he said. "I feel that our city officials have woefully failed as they encouraged development and have neglected to address the needs that are associated with development. It's disastrous."

In Charleston, food and beverage employees earn an average annual income of about $22,000, while hotel desk clerks and housekeepers earn about $20,400, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's less than half of the area's median income, which is about $46,000. 

Keith Benjamin, the city's new transportation director, explained that to City Council at the July meeting. 

"There's a significant concern about ... these hospitality workers coming in and how much they're paying (for parking)," he said. "Too many times they're left behind, and that's the backbone for our tourism and what we do here."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.