If you live in Manatee County, chances are you're not accustomed to paying to park when you go out.
But now that the arts and entertainment seasons are getting underway, you're likely to be going up to St. Petersburg or Tampa occasionally for shows. Maybe you're planning on catching a Broadway show at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa or a concert at Jannus Live or the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.
If you don't know those areas well, you'll probably park at the first or most obvious place you come across. And you're likely to pay more than you have to.
Here are some insider tips for parking in those areas, culled from people who live there and go to shows a lot. Some will save you a few bucks, some will save you time driving around town before the event, some will help you make a faster getaway after the show.
In St. Petersburg, even downtown, you ought to be able to park for free. But it's tricky.
Parking at the Mahaffey Theater lot is $5, which isn't bad. But just across the street from the parking lot, to the west, you can usually find free parking on the street.
In the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, if you're going to a show at American Stage, the Palladium or Jannus Live, you need to be wary of metered spaces. Some are free after 6 p.m., but others aren't free until later. So if you may think you've scored a free space, make sure you know the rules for that particular block or you may come back to find a ticket on your windshield. (The Palladium has a small free lot, but it usually fills up long before show time.)
You'll probably find a free, unmetered space easily if you don't try to park on Central Avenue. Head north and park on First Avenue North or just wind around the residential streets to the north and east of downtown until you find a space. You'll only end up a couple of blocks away. St. Petersburg's a great walking city, so don't worry too much about finding close-in parking, and just enjoy the stroll.
If you go to any of the smaller bars and clubs to the west of downtown, closer to Tropi
cana Field, there's ample free parking. But even at night you'll probably risk a ticket if you don't move your car every hour or two. Make sure you check the time limits.
FreeFall Theatre, which is far to the west of downtown, has plenty of free parking on site.
If you're going to a concert at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa, parking is gonna be a massive pain. You can't avoid it.
For a major concert, if you enter off Orient Road, you'll wait in a long line of cars and then find out it's for VIP parking and you have to pay something like $20. Just to park.
It's better to enter from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (there's an exit from I-75) and park for free. But it's a huge grassy area, part of the Florida State Fairgrounds, and there are no sections marked to help you find your car four hours later, after the show. You'll generally see dozens of people wandering aimlessly around the parking area, with no earthly idea where they parked, a long time after the show is over.
Even if you note a landmark that you parked close to, after the show there won't be anyone to direct you to that landmark.
The best bet is to take several cell phone pictures as you walk from your car to the amphitheatre, and then follow them like a trail of breadcrumbs back to your car at the end of the night. It's also a good idea to allow a whole lot of time for parking before a show, because you can park on site and still be a 20-minute walk to your seat.
If you're going to the Amalie Arena (formerly the Tampa Bay Times Forum), you can spend a whole lot of money to park within a couple of blocks. But at night there's always plenty of free parking on the streets just a couple of blocks farther north in the downtown area. If you're coming into downtown Tampa from I-75, get off at the Tampa Street/Ashley Drive exit, head south and, when you start hitting arena traffic, look for a space on a side street. You'll walk a minute or two longer, but you'll get out much faster after the show because you'll avoid the traffic jam. And you'll save $10 or $20.
The same's pretty much true a little ways up the street, at the Straz Center on the northern end of downtown. There's a pricey parking garage, a parking lot across the street from the Straz that costs $8, and one a block away (next to the hotel, on Fortune Street, just northeast of the Straz) for $5. (Sometimes, if the hotel's not too busy, you can park in the hotel lot for $5.)
But, if you get off I-275 onto Ashley Street and turn east on any side street, you'll find a free space. You may have to wind around the streets for a while, but you won't end up more than a few blocks away. And you'll avoid traffic backups after the show, too.
Finally, if you go to Ybor City, your best bet is always going to be the city parking garages. There's one just to the north of the strip, at 1500 E. Fifth Ave., and one just to the south, at 2010 N. 13th St. They're only $1 for three hours on weeknights, and an inexpensive flat rate on weekends. You're going to have to walk in Ybor no matter what, and the garages are fairly conveniently located and safer and less expensive than most of the surface lots. They also make it easier to find your car after you've been out for several hours in an unfamiliar area.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.