ST. CLOUD – It may seem counterintuitive for St. Cloud to balance its parking system deficit by quadrupling the amount of free downtown parking spaces on nights and weekends.

But that's what the city's six-month pilot program aims to do — and city leaders are banking on downtown patrons being willing to pay more for on-street parking.

"One of the biggest concerns we heard from the business owners is that those premium, convenient on-street parking spaces were being used by employees or others who were just using it for long-term parking," said Tracy Hodel, public services director. "So even if someone wanted to go downtown and have a convenient parking space — and even if they are willing to pay for that parking space — there wasn't anything available."

The new pilot program starts June 1. Previously, on-street metered parking was free after 6 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends, while the city's five downtown parking ramps had varying fees.

During the pilot, the parking ramps will be free beginning at 5 p.m. weekdays and all day on weekends, but street and surface lots will require payment 24/7.

Hodel said the system was inequitable and confusing for patrons and business owners, and didn't encourage turnover at the convenient on-street parking spots.

"Why are we charging for the nosebleed seats in the ramps but yet we're offering 50-yard line spots for free?" Hodel asked. "It just doesn't make sense."

Until early last year, on-street parking was 50 cents an hour. In early 2020, the St. Cloud City Council voted to raise the fee — which hadn't increased in 20 years — to $1 an hour. The city isn't raising the fee for on-street parking during the pilot. The city also installed signage for 10 curbside pickup spots, where parking is free for under five minutes.

To make up for deficits in the parking system, the city has dipped into reserve funds in recent years. In 2019, the city eked out a slim profit, with $1.97 million in revenue and $1.91 million in expenses.

"We broke even but we didn't have any money in reserves to pay for any major repairs or capital equipment needs," Hodel said.

In 2020, the city installed parking pay stations and started using the ParkMobile app, which allowed the city to get rid of parking attendants.

But during the pandemic shutdown, the city stopped parking enforcement. It brought in about $457,000 in revenue last year.

"We dropped our expenses down to $1.45 million in 2020. But unfortunately with those expenses there was nearly a million-dollar difference where we had to take some from reserves and some from property taxes," Hodel said.

Through April of this year, the city is again operating at a loss in its parking system.

"We're hopeful there are people willing to pay the low rate of $1 an hour to go and use those convenient parking spaces," Hodel said. "We're hoping that revenue will offset the free parking that we're offering."

While the downtown area has about 590 on-street parking spots, it has more than 2,000 spaces in ramps, although Mayor Dave Kleis said he frequently hears people complain about the lack of parking downtown.

"There's an abundance of parking that's available — it's just in ramps," Kleis said.

To help lure patrons into ramps during the pilot program, the city will offer people one hour of free daytime parking in ramps with the ParkMobile app. The city is also working with restaurants and businesses to use the app to validate parking for customers or employees.

"This creates less confusion for our customers," Hodel said. "It's a win-win for everybody."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299