WILDWOOD - Beaches may be free here, but a trip to visit them still involves paying to park. And how much that costs can vary depending on the weather and the popularity of the day's attractions.
"Some of them (parking lots) are exorbitant, especially when there's an event," said Dan Petela, parking enforcement officer for the city. Petela has seen rates as high as $25 during events such as the annual Beach Blast Soccer Tournament.
Mercantile records show there are 24 parking lots operating each summer. One of the largest lots, operated by a public authority, generates $500,000 in gross revenue.
Paying to park isn't unique to the shore, but Cape May County communities seem to have perfected the business. The tourist-dependent towns here count on the revenue for budget balancing.
To the north, Atlantic City has its parking garage fees, which also rise and fall with the season and can range from a low of $5 but were as high as $30 during the recent Dave Matthews Caravan event. Ventnor and Margate have meters that typically cost 25 cents for 30 minutes, with residential restrictions along beach blocks. On Long Beach Island, parking is free, but owners there have turned their lot fronts into driveways, cutting the number of spots close to the beach.
Wildwood lot operators say they're providing a service for a fair price.
"I absolutely think they're fair. They could be higher," Smitty's Parking Lot employee Paul Franco said while working that lot one weekend. "The rate is a value compared to other businesses."
Franco said the rates largely are based on demand. His lot charges as much as $15 during special events. Nearby, a lot at the corner of Schellenger and Ocean avenues was charging $10 for parking until 2 a.m.
John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority, said the convention center's lots start at $6 and cost as much as $15 for certain events or busy weekends.
"We do keep an eye on what's happening to our north," he said of the rates charged at competing lots.
In 2010, the convention center's 719 parking spaces generated $500,000 in gross revenues, Siciliano said. The convention center rents the lots from the city and pays rent, sales tax and the cost of employees to maintain the lots, he said.
Visitors have mixed reactions to paying out for a parking spot.
"I think that it was too expensive. It could have been $7 or $8," Keisha Smith said as she and her boyfriend, Mickieal Bachelor, both from Philadelphia, returned to their car after a day on the city's beaches.
But she admitted that when it comes to visiting the beach, location outweighs cost.
"Considering it's was so close I was willing to pay," Smith said.
The couple, making their first visit to the Wildwoods on Sunday, paid $15 to park in a lot operated by the Wildwoods Convention Center, which sits directly off the Boardwalk at Ocean Avenue. The lot next door was charging $20 when they arrived, Bachelor said, so $15 was the next best thing.
They came to Wildwood to get out of the city. "We just wanted to come to the beach," Smith said.
The beaches here, free from beach tags, are a popular draw, but Bachelor suggested the meaning of free is all relative.
"It's not free if you have to pay for parking," Bachelor said.
Shore towns say whether they charge or not, parking is always an issue. In Wildwood, the private lot operators provide convenience to visitors.
"There seems never to be enough parking," Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. said.
The city operates parking meters and one downtown lot on Schellenger Avenue, but the majority of lots in high-traffic areas such as Ocean Avenue are privately owned.
"I know everybody seems to complain about parking," Troiano said, "But I've paid a lot more to park in Philly. I was there 25 minutes once and it cost me $15."
Ocean City has a host of private lots that also charge a variety of rates.
"You'll see them as high as $20 to $25," said Frank Donato, Ocean City's director of financial management.
Donato said the City owns nine lots and charges as much as $15 for most lots. Overnight parking fees can go up to $18.
On the Sunday that Smith and Bachelor came to town, rates along Ocean Avenue ranged from $9.50 to $15, most until midnight or later. The Friday before, the rates ranged between $5 and $7.
While Petela has seen some cases of price gouging, he says he knows that visitors will sometimes flout parking laws.
"The people don't see anything wrong with parking wherever they want," he said.
He recalled the time he told a woman her car had to be moved because she chose to park across a sidewalk.
"The woman says, ‘Well, I'm on vacation. Don't you have anything better to do?'" he said.
She received a ticket for $95.
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