By Jim Reed
"The Big Bosses say we've got to get busy making Downtown Birmingham work better," City employee L.G. says to fellow city employee G.L., as they sit down at the Formica conference table under the blue-tinged fluorescent lights.
"Well, what could be better than what we're already doing?" asks G.L., who is willing to implement rules if it could just be determined what the rules are.
"I don't know...but the Bosses say we need to do some brainstorming and bring them some new ideas," L.G. grumbles, pulling out a legal pad and a pocket-protector ballpoint pen.
After a period of silence, during which both employees realize they don't have any ideas but had darned well better come up with something to fill the pages of that legal pad, they start rattling off thoughts.
"I know—why doesn't the City impose a fine that punishes visitors and shoppers for breaking the rules? That would bring in some extra revenue and maybe please the Bosses," says L.G.
G.L. says, "How would that work?"
L.G. nibbles the tip of the pen and begins to get excited. "Well, let's say some shopper breaks the law and parks in one on-street parking space for more than two hours. Any idiot should be able to get their shopping done in less time than that—then, they'd be taking up space that other people could use," L.G. proudly exclaims.
L.G. likes this idea and is on a roll. "Yeah, let's make the shopper really suffer, so that this won't be repeated. What if we charge a $15.00 SHOPPING PENALTY for each infraction? That should teach 'em!"
G.L. approves but has a sudden out-of-the-blue thought. "Is there any precedent for this? Like, does Homewood have parking meters, or do the Summit and Galleria malls charge their shoppers for staying too long and spending too much money?"
L.G. is impatient. "Don't be silly. Those places would close down within a month if the public learned they'd have to pay for parking and pay extra shopping penalties—they'd just go someplace else."
G.L. is confused. "Well, wouldn't that be the case Downtown, too? I mean, wouldn't people stop visiting and shopping here if they learned about these penalties?'
L.G. is trying to impart wisdom to the less experienced G.L. without being critical. "No, you don't understand. This is BIRMINGHAM! Birmingham doesn't have to follow the same rules as the Malls and the Suburbs. The City doesn't have to make money off of retail like those places do—in the City, we can make more money imposing fines than we could ever make from having free on-street parking for retail businesses."
G.L. wants to learn but is still puzzled. "Are you sure? I mean, like, if you attracted a whole lot of retail and service and professional businesses Downtown, wouldn't you wind up making big bucks from taxes…maybe even more bucks than the Meter Maids bring in?"
This is an alien concept to L.G., who was brought up in the post-Costa Head/Birmingham Green era, when it was assumed that the City would never again be a retail center. "Look, it's just plain easier this way. We won't have to exert much effort to get this extra income. Just impose the parking fines, impose the loading zone fines, enforce the parking limits to a T and rake in the revenue. We don't even have to be polite to the shoppers and merchants. Just do our job. The Bosses will be proud."
G.L. at this point makes a mistake and begins to think outside the box. "But, what about the merchants? Won't they lose customers and consider moving to the 'burbs? What about the customers, won't they realize you can park free and friendly at every strip mall and shopping center in the state? What about the tourists and conventioneers and layovers and others who come through the City every day? Won't they get a bad taste in their mouths, knowing that the Tourist Association is begging them to come to Birmingham but isn't warning them about all these shopping penalties in advance?"
At this point, L.G. makes an important notation on the legal pad. Something like G.L. isn't going to make it in this department. G.L. needs transfer. G.L. troublemaker.
"Well, let me spell it out for you, G.L. The more we punish the merchants and visitors and shoppers and loft dwellers, the more money we make. If they're not willing to pay the penalties, let 'em go elsewhere. There are always plenty more fresh faces coming to town."
L.G. leaves the table, dismisses G.L. and starts preparing a report for the Big Bosses.