It’s been three months since 57 parking meters in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s heritage district stopped accepting any form of credit card payment.
And many people are fed up.
“It’s horrendous what’s happening here,” said Gail Cunningham from the Butterfly Gallery on Queen Street.
She frequently encounters tourists who are unable to pay for parking due to data roaming charges and older visitors who don’t know how to use the app.
The issue came up at Tuesday night’s council meeting when Coun. Wendy Cheropita said she receives lots of emails about parking in Old Town.
She offered some possible solutions, such as providing visitors with free wifi.
But Coun. Maria Mavridis said free wifi in the heritage district would cost “upwards of a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
She suggested the town work with the Chamber of Commerce to encourage businesses that offer free wifi to display a sticker in their windows informing customers that they are welcome to use it.
Chamber president Minerva Ward said her organization has received “a lot” of complaints by email and people coming to the office to share feedback.
The only payment options are coins or through the Honk mobile app.
Beside each parking meter is a sign with a QR code users need to scan in order to download the app.
“I think it’s proving to be very confusing for people coming into town who don’t use their cellphone or don’t have data,” said Ann Froese, manager at Serendipity.
The meters no longer accept credit cards due to the aging infrastructure and newer payment protocols, the town’s communications co-ordinator Marah Minor said in an email to The Lake Report.
Only four machines, in the parking lot of the old NOTL hospital on Wellington Street, still accept credit cards.
Ward said she received an email from an American tourist who was upset after his recent visit to NOTL.
“I do not have a Canadian phone, do not carry 20 or more dollars in coins and your support number is Monday to Friday only, no help on the weekends when we can travel,” the letter said.
The meters charge $5.25 an hour and don’t accept bills.
“In the past, the ‘pay here’ towers accepted our credit cards and was a pleasure to use, even with the high cost,” said the visitor’s letter.
“This is a great way to tell us Americans you are not welcome here,” it added.
Ward is worried how this might affect the town.
“It’s not a reputation we want to have,” she said.
The town brought in more than $2 million in revenue from parking meters in 2023, said Minor.
Ward wondered if the parking meters will cause visitors to spend less time on Queen Street than they did in the past.
Many tourists put enough time in the meters for an hour or two, but sometimes decide they want to stay longer, she said.
“It’s easy to go put your card in and add more time,” she said.
“When you have to look for coins to do that, it will not be so easy.”
Decreasing visitors’ time in town could mean less parking revenue for the Town of NOTL – and could hurt downtown businesses.
Not many people carry a large amount of change, so visitors often have to ask nearby shops to break a bill, said Cunningham.
People come into her store every day asking for change for the meter, she said.
“I can’t supply change for everybody,” she said.
Froese deals with the same issue, especially on weekends when it’s busier.
“I have had to convert American dollar bills to coin,” she said.
Last Tuesday morning, Cunningham said an older man came in asking for help with the parking meter.
“He thought he could just use his credit card. He didn’t know how to download and all that stuff,” she said.
Froese noted not everybody feels comfortable entering their credit card information on an app.
It also takes a while to download and put your information in, she said.
“It’s a deterrent.”
Earlier this year, the town ranked second in Tripadvisor’s 2023 Traveler’s Choice “Best of the Best” Popular Destination in Canada awards.
“We’re supposed to be one of the top tourist places in Canada. And we’re treating tourists so terribly,” said Cunningham.
The heritage district was ranked 35th among the top 50 attractions.
“We are going to lose this prominent placement if the first impression a visitor has to Niagara-on-the-Lake is aggravation and frustration,” said Ward.
Ward isn’t sure how much it would cost to fix the machines, but said she heard it could cost upward of $800,000.
At the very least, she said, the town should provide change machines so visitors can break bills.
It’s not a permanent solution, but it’s something for now, she said.
Chief administrator Marnie Cluckie told council the town is looking into pricing out this option as well as maybe moving the four machines that still accept credit cards to locations along Queen Street.
Minor said town staff is exploring various upgrades to restore the credit card payment option and will return to council with solutions.
Cunningham said she believes workers should be on hand to assist people with the meters so the burden is not placed on the businesses.
“There’s never a person around to help these people, only to give them a ticket,” she said.
Cluckie said staff are considering sending out bylaw officers to help visitors with the parking meters.
Both Cunningham and Froese think parking meters should accept credit cards, especially with the busy tourist season coming up.
“We’ve only got three or four months to really make our annual sales here,” said Froese.