Consumer Repellants

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

Every once in a while, I check out ClusterFox New’s website to find out who is advertising there to be sure I don’t buy anything from their sponsors. It doesn’t mean much to anyone but me, but I’m the only guy I have to satisfy at this late point in life. Likewise, this afternoon--when it turned out that I’d managed to escape my class and arrived early for my wife’s birthday party at my daughter’s home—I found myself with a rare couple of unoccupied hours and an appetite. I’m near downtown Minneapolis, a place with a plethora of great restaurants in nearly every area of the city, and I’m not on a budget or in a hurry. Where do I go?

Dinkytown has great burger joints and designer beer. It also has parking meters and a boatload of underemployed metermaids. Downtown restaurants are practically abandoned buildings at 2PM, but they are surrounded by those damn meters. Riverfront? Nope, brand new meters as of last fall. So, I ended up in a neighborhood bar with “famous” hamburgers and I’m set for the next couple of hours.

The ‘burbs live off of consumers’ rejection of “urban planning” stupidity customer hostility. If I were an owner of a suburban business, I think I’d try to get myself elected to a major city's City Council so that I could increase the number of parking meters and metermaids. I think repelling consumers from the city would be at least as effective as an advertising campaign. I wouldn’t have to pay for the parking meters and metermaids, so on a cost-basis the political campaign might be a lot more effective use of my time and money than advertising. That might explain why so many city council members live outside of the urban centers.

At the least, I think urban business people ought to use accurate terminology when they are describing these meter plagues. I’d call them “consumer repellants.” Parking meters are probably the most effective way to reduce downtown congestion, over-stimulated downtown business activity, and all of the complications that come with customers and money-changing in a living city. Far better to force all of that nasty commerce on to the suburbs where they are better situated to deal with business.

St. Paul, for example, has shed the shackles of capitalism and opted for a purely government-based economy. Every significant downtown building is jammed with city and state offices and workers and that has saved the city from having to mess with sales taxes, traffic, and inflating property taxes. The City of St. Paul is an abandoned ghost town the moment all those city and state employees head back to the suburban homes. So much volume vanishes from the downtown area it almost feels like you’ve entered a low pressure zone if you stick around past 4:30PM in downtown St. Paul.

Minneapolis, on the other hand, has extended metering hours to 10:30PM, so that city’s metermaids prowl the streets looking for stragglers to punish and the rare visitor to downtown restaurants and bars. Duluth just began a major campaign to rid itself of tourists and Canal Park visitors. It will take a few years, but that brilliant strategy will soon solve both city's’ nasty downtown business problems.

For her birthday, this September, my wife wanted a trip to Duluth. Because she was feeling guilty about making me drive our cage through Wisconsin on our anniversary, she pretended she wanted to take the bike. We've done this trip a few dozen times in the last decade and it has always been one of our favorite things to do in Minnesota. The weather report for Duluth was for a 60% chance of rain. She wanted to hang out in Canal Park. Duluth downtown parking is motorcycle hostile and I couldn't think of a good reason to deal with the hassle. I suggested we take the cage so she'd be comfortable. She drove. I read a book.

A couple of years ago, I was forced to travel through downtown Cincinnati and I was amazed at how effective that city’s parking meter solution had been. That large, once-booming downtown was absolutely abandoned on a perfect Saturday afternoon. I think you could walk naked through Cincinnati’s streets and nobody would notice. It was amazing! Cincinnati had such an effective parking meter program that the Amtrak station’s parking lot was teeming with metermaids, like sharks who’d sniffed blood in the water but who’d arrived too late to sample the kill. As I loaded my gear on to my bike in front of the station, two Cincinnati metermaids stopped to warn me that I had ten minutes to move or they’d “have to” ticket me for illegal parking. As I pulled out of the loading zone, they looked absolutely lonely with the station lot back to its natural empty status.

When I toured North Dakota, I was sort of impressed with that state’s attitude toward ghost towns and empty business buildings. It seemed to me that a year or two of abandonment was justification for bulldozing a building or town. I wonder how long it will take for the major cities to take this approach? St. Paul has a “World Trade Center,” but if al Qaeda had blown up that collection of empty office spaces nobody in the state, let alone the nation, would have noticed. The city could save itself a lot of energy by knocking down at least half of the downtown buildings and making something useful out of the space; like more empty parking lots. At least you don’t have to heat a parking lot. It’s not like the city’s metermaids are so busy that adding a couple thousand more spaces to their route would cause an inconvenience.

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