As government officials began the annual budget process, the wish list for improvements across Manatee County ballooned quickly, prompting an inquiry into an untapped source of revenue — paid beach parking.
“We’ve got to start looking at user fees for a lot of these facilities we’re giving away for free right now. You certainly see Sarasota and Pinellas County going that way. You pay for parking if you want to go there,” Commissioner Stephen Jonsson said during a recent budget discussion. “We’re starting to see the impact of what it costs us to maintain those boat ramps and things like that.”
Tourism and Anna Maria Island beaches are the No. 1 economic driver in Manatee County, and they’ve also recently been the subject of tens of millions of dollars in improvements. Construction begins later this year on a revamped parking lot at Coquina Beach, the Kingfish Boat Ramp is set to be totally rebuilt and the county is working on huge beach erosion mitigation projects.
In 2017, tourism had a $1.2 billion impact in Manatee County. Officials say millions visit the county every year.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh agreed that beach parking at Manatee Public Beach and Coquina Beach shouldn’t remain a free handout.
“If you’re going to come and use our boat ramps and you’re not a Manatee County resident, you need to pay. I look at Siesta Key and I’d pay for parking there in a heartbeat,” said Baugh, who has broached the subject of paid parking with county staff before. “We do need to look at that. It is past time we look at that.”
On Manatee Public Beach Wednesday, beachgoers said the last the thing they want is to pay for parking.
“We are absolutely against charging for parking. We come out here every day. Everything’s family-friendly and affordable. That’s what attracts people down here,” said Robin Lehrman, who lives in Rhode Island and vacations in Bradenton for six months every year. “I think they’d hurt themselves if they did that.”
Other Florida counties already implement beach parking fees. In Pinellas County, it costs $5 for a daily pass, but visitors may purchase an annual beach parking pass for $75. In Miami-Dade County, parking fees are hourly and can be as expensive as $4 an hour.
“I think it’s pretty standard to pay for parking,” said Karen Smith, who was visiting Anna Maria Island for the first time. “I’ve been to other beaches on the east cost that charge. I’d like to see options for hourly parking or for a daily pass.”
Manatee commissioners did not suggest a rate or method for charging a parking fees at a Feb. 28 meeting. On the county website, free parking is listed as one of the provided amenities at local beaches.
“I’m looking at revenue sources and maybe we can’t do (paid beach parking) this year, but we can try next year and try to push it forward,” Jonsson said.
“That’s the only thing left that separates Manatee County from everybody else,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore said, arguing that paid parking would force visitors into street parking in Anna Maria Island neighborhoods.
There’s a chance to think outside the box, even if they do decide to implement paid parking, according to Commissioner Betsy Benac, who pointed out that they could set up a park-and-ride system that encourages visitors to use trolleys instead of driving to the beach themselves.
“We need more innovative transit opportunities,” she said. “We’re really going to try to get people out of their cars. I don’t know if it’ll work, but if you start telling them that we’ll have to charge you to park, then they might get out of their car.”