Dunedin moving toward funding a parking garage project

Plans are in the works to build a parking garage at Scotland Street and Douglas Avenue. The city bought the property last year for about $4 million.

DUNEDIN — The city has such a vibrant downtown there is a shortage of parking spaces. What a great problem to have.

That's what city Economic, Housing and CRA Director Bob Ironsmith said at the start of a City Commission discussion on plans to build a parking garage at Scotland Street and Douglas Avenue. The city bought the property last year for about $4 million.

Commissioners agreed by consensus to move forward on plans for a three-story parking garage, to accommodate 174 spaces, at cost of about $7.4 million.

Parking needs downtown are significant, Ironsmith said, and there is a lot of "at-risk" parking through short-term and long-term leases. The cost of the leases are expected to continually increase. The city pays about $138,000 annually for parking leases.

"As we move forward, we certainly want to get more in a position where we have permanent parking," Ironsmith said.

If the project gets final approval, construction is expected to start on the garage in 2024 and be finished that winter. Architectural features, such as public art, are being discussed.

City officials cited statistics at the meeting, such as 800,000 visitors coming to Dunedin every year, that call for a garage.

They expect that a key parking area, called the Ocean Optics lot at Douglas Avenue and Main Street, eventually will be lost. It has 55 spaces.

"I think the garage is important. I think we have had three parking reports that tell us that," Mayor Julie Bujalski said. "But I don't disrespect anybody else's opinion, what they feel. Every time we talk about it all the same things come up. For me I've just been through it too many times. I know we need a garage. I know Ocean Optics is going away at some time," she said.

Commissioner John Tornga said the city needs to have a comprehensive plan — understanding the parking situation and the needs — before commissioners come to conclusions.

"I don't want to see us having to raise our property taxes," he said.

The parking garage probably won't be sufficient for special events, he said. "It will be jammed instantaneously," Tornga said.

Commissioner Jeff Gow said being in the position of having to build a parking garage makes him angry, calling it a waste of money.

"We don't have a parking problem; we have a transportation problem," Gow said.

People insist on having wider and better roads and "all this stupid, stupid money that could go to better forms of transportation." 

Long-term parking solutions on transportation need to start somewhere, he said.

"We can build this parking garage and really not solve this problem. We will be back here in five years. Discussing, ‘Oh, we've got a parking problem,’" Gow said.

Commissioner Moe Freaney said she wants to see more statistics on downtown parking, such as peak times for parking. She also wants to see how the timing of funding the Highlander Aquatic Center improvements will affect other projects.

"Clearly, I want to see everything because I'm a big advocate of the pool," Freaney said.  

City officials will be having discussions on three other major capital improvement projects in the next several weeks involving the Highlander Aquatic Center, Dunedin golf course and the undergrounding of utilities for Skinner Boulevard. 

Funding would be through the Penny for Pinellas, the American Rescue Plan Act and the Community Redevelopment Agency, City Manager Jennifer Bramley said as part of the 2024 fiscal year budget.

In April staff will have a finance plan to recommend to commissioners based on the discussions on the projects.

The impact of tourism this year on the city was noted during the work session.

Commissioner Robert Walker said through working on the Caladesi Island ferry he learned that "we've never had a busier February than we've had this year."

He said that the ferry service had more than 400 guests Feb. 21, with about 90 percent he estimated from out of the area.

"That's what is happening," Bujalski said. "It's definitely not going to be reduced. It's only going to be bigger."

The city opened a revitalized stadium to accommodate the Toronto Blue Jays  in 2020 to accommodate an additional 4,000 additional people, she said.

"But guess what. No additional parking," Bujalski said.