Would free parking help or hurt Bethlehem merchants?

After almost 25 years of working on Main Street in Bethlehem, Aardvark Sports Shop owner Bruce E. Haines can guarantee at least once a week he’ll be debating downtown parking.

The hot topic of the moment is whether free parking — paired with stiff fines for over-staying time limits — in core areas of the city’s two downtowns could be a boon for business or complicate matters.

“I do feel there is a perception of a parking shortage in Bethlehem. I use the word perception because it seems to me that most days there is available parking in either of the public garages,” Bruce E. Haines said. “It is a constant challenge.”

Last month, Bethlehem City Council asked the city’s parking authority to consider conducting a free parking pilot program in the Historic Downtown and the Southside business district. The authority is open to the idea, but its board wants guidance from council on how such a pilot should operate and wants to know if the city plans to foot any of the bill.

“They (pilots and studies) are not cheap to run,” board chairman Joe Hoffmeier said at a recent authority meeting. “…We are more than happy to listen to them.”

Councilwoman Dr. Paige Van Wirt’s floated the idea of offering three hours of free parking on portions of Broad, Main and East Third streets paired with heftier fines for overstaying time limits — think $30 to $50.

“I think our shopping districts need help and I think our citizens need to know they can come and shop downtown with…

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