LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Fans attending the monthly Music on Main gatherings and other Main Street events are being warned not to park illegally. Soon, it'll be more than just warnings.
Lakewood Ranch Town Hall has already placed signs on its property, notifying visitors where they can and cannot park during Main Street events. Officials are now planning to enter into an agreement with a towing company to start cracking down on violators.
"I've seen people in our flower beds. I've seen people on our sidewalks. It's just a free-for-all," said Town Hall Executive Director Eva Rey.
East Manatee Fire Rescue notified Town Hall following August's Music on Main that several cars were blocking emergency access to the building, Rey said. Town Hall has since placed two permanent signs at each entrance to its parking lot warning of the tow-away zone, at the recommendation of the fire marshal.
Compounding the problem is the loss of what used to be an empty field across Lakewood Ranch Boulevard that visitors had been using for parking. That lot is now a construction site for a new 237-unit apartment complex, The Venue at Lakewood Ranch.
But that lot, plus an adjacent one behind it that is a potential hotel site, were never really meant to be parking options anyway, said Julia DeCastro, director of leasing for Main Street. Event organizers have just been allowing people to park there in the interim.
Parking for events has "always been an issue," said DeCastro. She's urging Lakewood Ranch residents who live nearby to carpool, bike or walk to events if they can. Event organizers are even experimenting with a free rickshaw service to help ease the parking situation, she said.
With some Main Street events drawing up to 5,000 people, residents shouldn't automatically expect to be
able to park right next to an event unless they need a handicapped space, DeCastro said.
"No one's going to have parking like that unless you're a football stadium," DeCastro said.
Parking is a big concern for upcoming events such as the popular Boo Fest at the end of October, where 4,000 to 5,000 people are expected, according to Lori Basilone, director of activities for Lakewood Ranch.
Without the once-empty field, Basilone said, "I can't imagine where else they're going to end up."
Organizers already operate a trolley to accommodate people who have to park farther away, and Basilone is considering expanding the reach of the trolley to as far as the Market Street Publix parking lot a half-mile away.
At least one resident has suggested to Basilone that a two- or three-story parking garage is needed, Basilone said. But that wouldn't work from a financial standpoint, according to DeCastro.
"I love the idea but we don't have any money to pay for it," she said.
For now, people will have to utilize the parking that's available while being mindful of the tow-away zones. Rey said she's trying to take a careful approach before the enforcement begins, with staff issuing warnings and directing cars where not to park.
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.