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Wilmington’s pay-by-phone parking system largely a success

By Michelle Cerulli
Michelle.Cerulli@StarNewsOnline.com

Photo By Jeff Janowski Gayle Tabor of Glynne's Soaps helps simulate an action she does often when parking downtown - oaying parking fees with a few clicks of her phone instead of steadily adding change to the old parking meters.

Published: Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.

Last year, the city of Wilmington rolled out a new pay-by-phone parking service that gives anyone using a downtown on-street meter the option of paying with credit.

Short on quarters? No longer a problem. In a meeting and worried about getting back to your meter in time? No need to rush out. A quick call to extend your park time squashes your chances of getting a ticket.

Park Wilmington, the city’s parking program, implemented the pay-by-phone parking service in late April 2009 to offer people another option when parking downtown. Pay-by-phone parking is available at any of the 760 on-street spaces downtown.

On a recent trip downtown, I decided to try it out. Actually, I was forced to try it out because aside from a few pennies, I had no change. I called the pay-by-phone number on the side of the meter and keyed in “one” at the prompt since I was a new user. The system asked me to enter my cell phone number, which I did, and then a strange thing happened.

“For your security, please enter a 4-digit secret pin of your choice,” the automated female voice told me.

So I keyed in the last four digits of my Social Security number.

“Sorry, that pin is invalid.”

The system instructed me to enter my 10-digit cell phone number again and then the elusive “secret pin.” So I keyed in my birthday. Again, no luck. I entered my cell phone number again and then tried keying in four random digits. Again the system wouldn’t accept me.

Finally, I keyed in four “ones,” which worked. I proceeded to the credit card and time entry steps, and it was smooth sailing from there. Though I’m not sure I would have stuck around for a fifth attempt if the fourth hadn’t worked.

John Hinnant, a life-long Wilmington resident, said he has been using the pay-by-phone parking service since July of last year. He estimates that he’s paid by phone about 50 times now.

Hinnant is the executive director of Wilmington Downtown Inc., a 34-year-old public-private partnership with the city and New Hanover County that aims to encourage activities that enhance the lives of those who “live, work and play” in the historic riverfront area, he said.

“I serve on the city’s Downtown Parking Advisory Committee, and pay-by-phone parking was something we felt we needed to add as a service for convenience,” Hinnant said. “When dealing with city parking, you need to make the experience as customer-friendly as possible.”

Wilmington resident and local online business owner Gayle Tabor agrees. Tabor, co-owner of Glynne’s Soaps, first noticed the pay-by-phone parking service when she was caught in a bind parking downtown.

“We didn’t have change,” Tabor said. “I looked at the meter and said, ‘Oh, wow. We can pay by phone.’ That was the first time we tried it, out of necessity.”

But now when Tabor uses the service, it’s out of convenience, she said.

“After I set up (my account) for the first time, the service remembers who I am from my phone,” said Tabor, who moved to Wilmington 16 years ago. “What sold us on it was the first time we got a text message saying our time was about to expire and asking us if we wanted to buy more time. We were eating downtown, and no one had to run out and find change. We thought, ‘Yeah, we’ll add time.’|”

From May 2009-April 2010, the pay-by-phone parking service has generated roughly $20,000 dollars in revenue, according to the city. During that time, an average of 1,500 pay-by-phone transactions per month were made by roughly 500 users per month.

The blocks surrounding Cape Fear Community College remain the most popular pay-by-phone parking service areas when school is in full session.

Hinnant said he believes that high use in these areas is an indication of how younger people, especially students, aren’t afraid of new technologies and are more apt to use them.

“The last thing we want to be viewed as is a city that hasn’t embraced technology,” Hinnant said.

Betty Gurganus, city parking manager, said that aside from information on the meters themselves, pay-by-phone parking information can be found on the city’s website, city brochures and on signs by the new parking pay stations downtown.

As for potential downsides to the service, Hinnant said it may decrease parking space turnover, leading to meters being locked up all day. Fortunately I didn’t run into any trouble finding a meter spot on my weekday sojourn into the city. Maybe it was beginner’s luck.

Michelle Cerulli: 343-2028

On Twitter.com: @StarNewsOnline

About Gayle

Gayle is a Social Media Enthusiast and Consultant with Biz Buzz Social Media Marketing; co-owner of Glynne's Soaps; a dalmatian rescuer; genealogist and member of the Daughters of the Revolution (DAR) and of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC); a Cubs Fanatic; hopeful bagpiper; purveyor of positive; and a curious seeker of life.
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