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Ocean Drive parking still a mess as GoLine gives up

Photo: Hunting for a parking spot on Ocean Drive.

"Disappointed but not surprised."

That's how Caesar Mistretta, co-owner of the Stringer Gallery on Ocean Drive, described his feelings about the failure of GoLine's now-defunct beachside bus route to ease the parking shortage in the Central Beach business district.

"With only eight people a day riding it, I can't blame them for shutting it down," said Mistretta, who is also president of Vero's Beachside Retailers Association and an Oceanside Business Association board member. "It was worth a shot, I suppose, but none of us had much hope for it, anyway.”

Mistretta and other Central Beach merchants, especially those who own smaller boutiques and galleries along Ocean Drive, were hopeful that beachside hotel and restaurant workers would park in Riverside Park and ride the shuttle rather than park on the streets, where they occupy spaces needed by customers. But the merchants warned that the shuttle would significantly alleviate the parking shortage only if hotel and restaurant managers required employees to use it.

And they didn't – because they couldn't, according Vero Beach City Manager Jim O'Connor and Karen Deigl, CEO of the Senior Resource Association, which runs the GoLine county transportation system. Both O'Connor and Deigl said hotel and restaurant managers could not make riding the shuttle a condition of employment without paying workers for the time they spent waiting for and riding the bus.

In addition, employers who required workers to ride the bus would assume liability for any harm that might occur during the trips.

"The employers could only encourage their workers to ride the shuttle, and the workers didn't want to," Deigl said. "People want the convenience of driving to work and having their vehicles right there when they're ready to leave."

As a result, GoLine's much-hyped "Beachside Circulator" ceased operations Sunday, just 18 months after embarking on its first trip.

According to Deigl, ridership on the free, park-and-ride shuttle – a joint public-private venture funded by a Florida Department of Transportation grant and a local contribution from the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa – had dwindled to 16 one-way passengers per day.

In fact, the daily shuttle often was empty as it completed its 20-minute loops, which started at 5:40 a.m. and continued until 6 p.m.

"We gave it a try for a year and a half, but the ridership isn't there," Deigl said. "I'm not about to continue spending taxpayer dollars on a route that's not working."

The shuttle began operating July 1, 2015, with a $120,000 FDOT grant covering 75 percent of the annual cost and the required 25 percent local share paid by the Heaton Companies, which own the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa.

O'Connor said Deigl's decision to terminate the service was understandable and that discontinuing the route would not have any noticeable impact on the Central Beach parking situation.

"Nobody was using it, anyway, so we're really in no worse shape than we were before," O'Connor said. "We've got more parking enforcement now, because we have a full-time parking officer and we're issuing more citations, but parking in that area is still a huge challenge.

"We have high demand and limited supply, so we've either got to create more spaces or make sure we're maximizing the spaces available, including the spaces on Cardinal Drive," he added. "There's no place to add spaces, but we need to make use of the spaces behind some of the businesses."

O'Connor said merchants in the Central Beach business district want their customers – many of them older and unable or unwilling to walk several blocks to shop – to have access to parking in front of their stores.

The merchants have complained that many potential customers opt to not shop and drive off if there are no convenient parking spaces available, he said, adding that it's a legitimate concern. The city painted "Customer Parking Only" on some spaces in front of several Central Beach stores, even though the words weren't enforceable.

What's the solution?

"The answer is for the big hotels to provide parking for their employees so their employees don't have to park on the street," Mistretta said. "They can do it. They just don't want to."

Mistretta acknowledged the city's stepped-up efforts to enforce the two-hour parking time limit, but he said the crackdown has done little to solve the problem, particularly during Vero Beach's busy winter season.

He said hotel and restaurant employees avoid getting ticketed for violating the time limit by coming out two at a time and trading spaces every two hours, or by leaving enough room to pull forward or back up to change the position of their chalk-marked tires every two hours.

"The two-hour time limit becomes meaningless," Mistretta said. "They're taking up spots eight hours a day."

He said the beachside merchants groups would continue to work with the city to seek a viable solution, which, he added, could include another shuttle.

With Vero Beach becoming more popular with winter visitors and year-round retirees, and with "the season" starting earlier and stretching into May, O'Connor said he's open to suggestions – as long as they don't involve meters or any other pay-to-park plan.

"Someday, it might become inevitable, but the City Council has made it clear it doesn't want paid parking," O'Connor said, "and a number of the merchants feel the same."

Local realtors say they, too, are concerned about the parking shortage in the Central Beach business district, primarily because of the impact it could have on the boutiques, galleries and beach access that draw potential homebuyers to Vero's barrier island.

They're worried that at least some of these shops might disappear because of a lack of convenient customer parking, which could drive them out of business.

"We do not want to have these boutiques close or move," Premier Estate Properties' Kay Brown said. "They create the charm and ambience of our seaside shopping area."

Gena Grove of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Realty agreed, saying her clients love the shops and restaurants along Ocean Drive and they want easy access to them.

"Obviously, we want these really nice boutique stores to survive ..." she said. "Nobody would want them to turn into souvenir shops."