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Downtown Revitalization: Parking, Police, and Open Containers

by on August 24, 2015 6:00 AM

It was a gorgeous Saturday night in late July so my family opted for an evening downtown. 

We easily found a parking spot near the center of the action. 

We were pleasantly surprised when the parking kiosk refused to take our money.  

The message on the screen said “Parking is free during these hours.”  

As we made our way through the crowded sidewalks and noted the wait lines at most restaurant, we were glad that we had called ahead to make a reservation. Knowing that we had a bit of time to wait, we stopped in to one of the bars and purchased “beers to go” and took them back out on the street to listen to the live entertainment and stop by the booths of art and other crafts that were set up on the square.  

There were college kids, families with small children, adults in groups and couples walking the streets. Carrying our drinks, we popped in and out of several stores and I ended up buying something totally on impulse. After dinner, we stopped at another restaurant for a nightcap and then headed back home (designated driver at the wheel). 

A total of 3-4 hours spent downtown and an estimated $172 pumped into local businesses for our food and drink and another $25 spent on a souvenir. We were surprised by what seemed to be a limited police presence in the area. 

Free parking and a system that doesn’t take money during non-payment hours? A festival atmosphere that seemingly encouraged people to have open containers of adult beverages? Busy streets and sidewalks full of young people, older folks and families with children? An almost invisible police presence? 

Obviously we were not in State College.

I love State College and regularly use the downtown restaurants and stores. I love the energy and like to support local businesses over chains when I can. At times like the last weekend’s Penn State student move-in and on football weekends, it can get pretty crowded downtown.  

Unfortunately, I know of many locals who don’t visit downtown State College – or think about locating their businesses downtown -  because of the perception of restrictive and limited parking options and the perception that the downtown businesses seemingly target the student market. The empty store fronts and the push from the Downtown State College Improvement District to get people other than students downtown is an on-going push.

How can Savannah, Georgia and other cities encourage a hearty and robust downtown and evening entertainment draw? Is it possible for State College?

First, is the issue of parking. The new parking kiosk in the State College municipal lot across from Panera on Beaver has been a nice change from the old meters.  Patrons can use a credit card and the system can send a text if the “meter” is about to expire. It does not, however, tell people during off hours that parking is free. 

I can’t count how many people I have stopped from paying for parking in the hours before 10:00 AM when parking fees begin in that lot. As a first step, can we set our programs to be like those in other cities that won’t take money during the free hours? Has any consideration been given to expand the free hours to encourage people from outside the borough to visit downtown? 

When we visited Savannah, parking was free on a Saturday night during the busy tourist season. We had no trouble finding a spot in the heart of the action.  

The issue of alcohol and open containers is a bit more complicated. Just this weekend, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was downtown for a theatre event and noted “the students are back” because she had to step over someone who was sprawled out on the sidewalk, obviously drunk. How are other cities able to manage this issue?  

Savannah and Memphis and Orlando and Butte Montana, as just a few examples, have established specific areas that they call historic districts or entertainment districts which permit open containers only within those specific boundaries. Ohio recently enacted legislation that permits open containers within specific districts in cities of over 36,000 people.  

Most have restrictions that the open containers must be plastic cups with alcohol purchased from local establishments. The goal of these and other similar programs is to draw people downtown to attempt to revitalize those areas. The foundation for the programs is controlled, geographic limits or certain days/times of the year for loosening of the open container laws.  

As we saw in Savannah, not everyone drinks but having the option added to the festive atmosphere. In the cities that do allow open containers, people are fined if they step out of those areas with the plastic cup so the word allegedly gets out pretty quickly. The statistics in Savannah suggest that underage drinking, violation of the open container laws and other alcohol related crimes happens outside of the historic district.

When we give people permission to act like adults, they often do.

Every July, we close down several streets for the Central PA Festival of the Arts. We bring in live entertainment and set up stages on Allen Street and in the Central parklet. Recently, the Downtown State College Improvement District folks have started “First Friday” which, according to their website offers “after-hours access to galleries and shops, free bites and beverages, live music and entertainment, retail and restaurant specials, and more. And there's free parking in the Pugh, Fraser and Beaver garages with validations from participating merchants” on the first Friday of the month. 

Imagine the draw if they made made all parking free on those Friday nights and then allowed open containers in limited areas?

Look at the success of Tussey Mountain’s Wingfest as a model for warm weather, entertainment, good food and adult beverages. That place gets packed.

Is the existing student alcohol so much of a problem in State College that we wouldn’t ever consider allowing open containers so that people could sit with a beer or a glass of wine while enjoying the downtown? Is there a way we can manage it?  Because one group of people can’t manage themselves, do we let that ruin a potential opportunity and draw to the downtown for the rest of us?  

We had a great time during our evening in Savannah.  We parked for free. We stayed longer than we planned. We spent more than we expected.  Not everyone in our party had a drink but the festive atmosphere and the novelty of having the option made it fun. The attached picture is of a sign near the exit of the restaurant where we had dinner.

Don’t forget your beer to go.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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