Anna Maria Island boasts a host of unique Old Florida beach resorts, many once-aging motels thoroughly updated with modern conveniences. With an ever-growing abundance of vacation homes just as popular with visitors and an army of locals and snowbirds heading to the beaches, the island becomes packed with people.
And traffic. On weekends, holidays and during season, the island sometimes grinds to a halt as vehicular traffic clogs the bridges and the north-south arterial.
Where do all those cars and trucks park? With few public parking lots, the spillover descends onto residential streets and commercial spots, irking year-round residents and sparking debates at municipal meetings.
While Bradenton Beach is blessed with expansive public parking at Coquina Beach, Holmes Beach sports a much-smaller lot at Manatee County Public Beach, and the city of Anna Maria has a minuscule lot to the east of Gulf Drive near the Sandbar restaurant and space along Bayfront Park.
Both Holmes Beach and Anna Maria are grappling with the issue of congestion -- in particular, whether to charge visitors for parking. The idea of a multi-level parking garage has come up again in Holmes Beach.
But the issue is particularly hot in Anna Maria, the northernmost municipality that is attracting more and more people. The city commission plans to further discuss the idea of charging for parking, though Mayor SueLynn told Herald reporter Sara Kennedy, "It's not something any of us want to do."
An informal vehicle count over a six-day period around the Fourth of July weekend discovered some 51,000 cars entered or exited -- a phenomenal number, especially since Gulf Drive is the only way in and out.
This difficult dilemma raises competing issues. Tourism is the island's lifeblood, and parking fees could discourage visitation. And parking meters along Anna Maria's now-bustling commercial district would be bad for business.
On the other hand, paid parking would produce a new revenue source for Anna Maria -- the justification being the impact that day-trippers impose on the municipal infrastructure. Water and sewer systems and roads must be maintained; trash must be collected and carted off the island. Visitors contribute little to those costs while they enjoy the benefits.
Would day-trippers balk at a nominal fee for parking, say $1 or $2 for their visit? We think not, but an amount that hits the wallet too hard could deflate tourism. Of course, Anna Maria residents should be exempt, with municipal parking stickers on their vehicles.
Would meters be installed or could visitors purchase a permit from a machine and place it in their vehicle's dashboard? Would parking enforcement be too costly? Would the city need to employ a meter reader or other workers to monitor the situation and issue tickets?
There are no easy answers. The city commission takes up the issue Thursday. People want to enjoy this slice of paradise for a variety of reasons, and they have every right to do so.
One former commissioner ousted in a recall election several years ago had floated the unnerving idea of installing a gate at the city limits. But that sort of "Keep Out" mentality finds allies among city residents upset with visitors who park on their property, block driveways and otherwise act with disrespect. Ticketing and towing would send a message. These problem visitors complicate the broader parking problem.
The conundrum has befuddled island governments for years now, but it's reaching the boiling point as the crowds grow larger and larger. A parking garage in Holmes Beach could be a game-changer since Manatee Public Beach is such a hot spot and easier parking may dissuade beachgoers from heading to Anna Maria.
Our recommendation: Manatee County government should sit down with the city commissioners from Anna Maria and Holmes Beach to hammer out a solution. The county is responsible in one regard -- its aggressive marketing of the island's wonders is bringing a tourist tsunami. Those marketing dollars will backfire when visitors find the island impossible to navigate and not only never return, but post terrible reviews about the traffic nightmare. That's not an appealing message.
The island garners major money in tourism tax dollars, and a fair portion of that should be remitted to the island in the form of infrastructure improvements
Tourism benefits the entire area. The county should own up to this and help solve the problem.