The introduction of free parking in Rotorua's hard-pressed downtown has been hailed as the way forward for Tauranga's CBD.
Rotorua has decided to spend $650,000 on "Smart Eye" technology so that although parking was free, sensors under every carpark emitted a signal whenever the car exceeded the time limit. A parking warden was then directed to the carpark.
It was part of a package of measures to encourage shoppers back into Rotorua's downtown which has taken a huge hit since the free-parking Central Mall opened. There were 90 to 100 empty shops.
Tauranga councillor Murray Guy said Rotorua had picked up on a new way of thinking which would solve the inequity of people having to pay for parking in Tauranga's downtown whereas it was free everywhere else.
If it was a choice between paying and not paying, the retail centres that offered free parking won nine times out of 10, he said.
"Our city centre is in a serious predicament. It is only when our backs are against the wall that we take the steps we should have taken from the outset. I'd like to see this council consider the technology."
Mainstreet Tauranga manager Kirby Weis said he supported the council looking at anything that removed the barriers to people coming into town. The difference between Rotorua and the new initiatives being introduced into Tauranga's downtown on July 1 was that the time limits on parking would be removed in Tauranga.
He said it allowed people to park for as long as they had the money to pay and removed the common frustration of people rushing back to shift their cars.
Tauranga's deputy mayor David Stewart said workshops with retailers had concluded that uncontrolled free parking was not viable. It created behaviour that was not conducive to a good turnover of carparks.
However, there were lessons that Tauranga could learn and if the technology proved itself in Rotorua, the council could look at it for Mount Maunganui and Greerton, with the possibility of introducing the sensors into the city centre as well.
"We could end with free parking.
"Parking needs to be about as many people coming to town as possible and not about revenue gathering. If the result is free parking and we get the behaviour we want, then we need to have a look at it."
Rotorua councillor Mike McVicker said they were expecting parking fines to drop from $1.2 million a year to $400,000. The Smart Eye technology will be trialled to see if the sensors reacted with Rotorua's geothermal environment.
All going well, the full system would be installed October-November.