Parking charges are "penalising" business owners in Rotorua's CBD some say, prompting a petition calling for free parking.
However, the chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce says free parking could stymie car park turnover, negatively affecting businesses.
Susan Jory, owner of Portico Gallery on Pukuatua St, launched the petition on Monday and by Thursday it had attracted 899 signatures.
In the petition, Jory said parking was free at overseas-owned outlets such as Kmart and McDonald's, but potential customers were discouraged from supporting local businesses as they had to pay for parking in the CBD.
"The [Rotorua Lakes] council is creating a barrier for small and medium-sized businesses trying to get back on their feet after the biggest economic shock of our lifetime."
She said the council was "effectively disadvantaging" small local businesses over large corporations and putting "thousands of jobs and livelihoods at risk".
Jory said by making parking free in the CBD the council had a chance to "make it fair, make it right and make it work".
She told the Rotorua Daily Post she had contacted the council, including the mayor and councillors, about the petition.
"It's unfair and undemocratic that people have to pay to shop at small local businesses but they can shop for free at the big guys. It's a bit of a David and Goliath story really."
She said the problems plaguing the parking system exacerbated the issue for local businesses.
"It's just a nightmare - and that was then, it's even more of a problem now.
Zippy Central cafe owner Morgan Wilson said he believed the parking system discouraged people from coming to the CBD.
Business owners there were "screaming" for help from the council as the worst effects of Covid-19 were yet to come.
"Rates abatement is a joke. They're not taking a pay cut, they're not cutting rates. It's a farce."
He supported the petition and said a previous trial of free two-hour parking had proved successful.
Rotorua Chamber of Commerce chief executive Bryce Heard said he supported the idea of free parking for about a month or two, as a "kicker" for the CBD, but said long-term it could limit turnover, which was not necessarily good for businesses.
"If you had free parking, it would all be occupied by the staff of the businesses all day."
He understood parking was a major issue for a number of members in the CBD.
Council operations manager Jocelyn Mikaere said she agreed it was "now more crucial than ever for people to be able to easily access businesses in the CBD".
"[The] parking policy is about fair and consistent management of parking to help ensure availability and turnover for the collective good of all users, and it is a well-used system."
Any change would require a "carefully considered" council decision.
"We have previously trialled free parking in the CBD and then faced the issue of some workers parking all day outside their place of work, or other businesses, meaning limited available spaces for customers and sparking complaints from businesses."
Mikaere said the parking layout provided a "good balance" of time-limited free parking and paid parking to best manage premium parking space in the CBD, and included a "significant portion" of free time-limited parking as well as 15-minute parks aimed at "assisting convenience shopping".
"The provision and maintenance of car parking spaces comes at a cost regardless of whether the parking itself is free. A 'user-pays' system helps ensure that the activity is primarily funded by those using it."
She said a "number of improvements" to the parking system had been made during alert levels 4 and 3.
"In alert level 2, customers will find the parking machines now have more user-friendly on-screen instructions, the Pukuatua St parking building has been upgraded, the parking app will be launched and some existing all-day paid parking areas will become $4 a day parking zones for inner city workers."
As a change to parking in the CBD would require a council decision, the Rotorua Daily Post asked the mayor and councillors for their take on the issue.
Mayor Steve Chadwick: "Petitions are a valid democratic tool for residents to use as a way to influence decision-making. Parking systems are about managing demand to support businesses by ensuring fairness of access for everybody. If the demand has changed we would need to consider if a change of policy is warranted. So it's not a matter of simply supporting the petition or not, as there are factors that would need to be weighed up."
Deputy mayor Dave Donaldson: "The current arrangement was arrived at after extensive consultation, particularly with input from the CBD business owners. They made the point of the need for turnover in parking availability for their customers. I accept there may be the need for ongoing reviews as there are major changes in the CBD landscape or business environment. I will look at the petition with an open mind."
Councillor Peter Bentley: Supported free parking, had signed the petition and said he would either put up a motion or second someone else's.
Councillor Reynold Macpherson: "Free parking in the CBD is a no-brainer in a recession / depression. It will help struggling CBD businesses to hold on and keep jobs alive. The council's parking system doesn't make much money and is nothing but trouble."
He said he would have to consult the Rotorua Residents and Ratepayers group, of which he is a member, before putting forward a motion on the matter.
Councillor Fisher Wang: "I do support one-hour free parking for our CBD for the long-term, not just for the next six months. It's essential that not only do we support our local businesses, but also to encourage people to come into our CBD, I believe that this will be a good start to our recovery strategy and give local businesses a fighting chance to rebound back from an unprecedented event like this."
Councillor Merepeka Raukawa-Tait: "I make my decisions and do my voting at the council table. However I am not surprised there is a petition circulating. I think parking in the CBD has been a real dog's breakfast over the past couple of years. Not intended but that's been the outcome. There is a process to go through to bring a petition before council so I hope the petition organisers see it through so free parking gets the rigorous debate I think it deserves."
Councillor Raj Kumar: "It's time common sense prevailed. Hopefully to entice people back into the city and help our ailing business owners, we can be kind and get people to come back to the city. Rotorua [Lakes] Council needs to lead instead of being followers of what paradigm other councils are doing in this space. I hope in the future we can scrap this parking system too. People are over this nonsense."
Kumar said he would put forward a motion on the matter or support someone else's.
Councillor Mercia Yates: "I support one hour free parking across Rotorua, not just CBD, where there is a one-hour restriction or longer. We need to back and support local businesses. However there should also be opportunity for our community to top up or pay for longer if required."
Councillor Tania Tapsell: "No - I do not support the petition of free-parking forever but am open to finding solutions to assist in the short-term. The petition is deceiving as there is already a number of free 60 and 15 minute parks along Tutanekai St. Parking is a user-pays system which provides revenue for the significant costs of maintaining our roads and footpaths ... We have cheap parking compared to others. I acknowledge and appreciate the difficulties being faced by businesses and [the] council has offered to defer rates for those who have been significantly impacted by Covid-19."
Rotorua Lakes Council declined a right of reply to councillor comments criticising the parking system.
Councillors Sandra Kai-Fong and Trevor Maxwell did not respond to a request for comment.
A poll was placed on the Rotorua Daily Post Facebook page asking "do you support free parking in the city?"
Please note the poll is not a scientific measurement.
At 2pm on Thursday, 97 per cent voted yes and 3 per cent voted no, with 1700 votes.
"[Free parking will] encourage people to shop in the CBD more which will in turn encourage more businesses to open in that area - isn't revitalising the CBD one of the aims the council has?"
"Issue employees of CBD businesses with a voucher or discount code for metered areas or establish sufficient free all-day parking areas to meet employee demand. Other free parking limited to encourage shoppers and visitors to move around and increase footfall around CBD."
"Payments should be simple and convenient. If it was free then parks are taken all day by workers, and shoppers are forced out. Two hours is enough."
"Two hours free would be great, but we need to stop shop owners parking all day in CBD."
"I support free parking now that Rotorua needs to have life breathed into it after the lockdown. Any sensible person would figure out that free parking would be a good way to get our town pumping again. Even just a short trial would be a good starting point."
"One hour free parking is all that is needed. Get rid of the machines, if anything, bring back coin meters - it was a ghost town before lockdown, worse now. Ghosts don't even want to be there."