Ben Durham often walks a couple of blocks to work at the Cold Stone Creamery on Chattanooga's downtown waterfront, parking his car on the street and feeding a two-hour meter during the day.
Sometimes, though, he must park farther away when there's a downtown event such as the popular Head of the Hooch rowing regatta a few weeks ago.
"I've got to walk three or four blocks," he said.
The situation shared by Durham and many other downtown workers is one reason officials are trying to ease the central city's parking predicament: a shortage of parking spaces at key times and locations, such as in the waterfront area.
City and downtown officials are joining to craft a long-term plan to help workers, business people, residents and tourists alike.
Solutions may involve shifting more downtown workers such as Durham from on-street parking to nearby surface lots and opening up prime metered spaces to tourists and people visiting the district, officials said.
Also, there's some thought of creating more parking in certain areas, such as near the TVA office complex, to serve workers and spur redevelopment there.
And the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, a major parking lot owner downtown, plans to hire a parking director who can give full attention to the issue.
Tom Dugan, who heads CARTA, said officials are stepping up the effort to solve downtown's parking puzzle.
"We're going to accelerate the process," he said. "No more talk. It's 'What do we need and how do we do it?'"
Kim White, president of the nonprofit downtown development group River City Co., said the problem is less a shortage of parking spaces than poor management of what's there.
"We've had planners in town, and they say we've got a lot of parking downtown," she said. "But we let people feed meters all day."
That keeps people making short trips for businesses, restaurants and attractions from using the metered spaces, she said.
White said she'd like the city to approve a plan in the first quarter of 2011.
A couple of circumstances have helped make the parking issue ripe for fixing.
Unum Group's newest employee parking garage is scheduled to open early next year. Then the insurance giant plans to open up about 600 parking spaces in its two lots between Third and Fourth streets to the public. Unum would hire a company to manage the lots.
Richard Meadows, Unum's assistant vice president of corporate real estate, said the company is talking with local officials about ways to get downtown workers to use its lots rather than street meters. That could involve making rates cheaper than feeding meters, he said.
"We want to make sure rates are competitive," Meadows said.
Parking rates on surface lots downtown vary widely. Lots near the Tennessee Aquarium and downtown restaurants charge a pricey $9 for anything over two hours. Meter rates vary by location.
Earlier this year, City Council members balked at a proposal by Mayor Ron Littlefield this year for a $6.5 million parking garage to serve Tennessee Valley Authority employees downtown.
TVA has about 2,600 employees downtown. The city plan would lease some parking spaces to TVA and rent the rest to the public.
BY THE NUMBERS
* 11,700: Public parking spaces available downtown
* 10,900: Private and restricted spaces downtown
* 1,800: Metered spaces downtown
* 14,000: Surface spaces downtown
Spaces by downtown sector
* North Shore: 2,100
* Riverfront area: 3,200
* Central business district: 11,400
* Southside: 6,400
Source: 2004 parking study, CARTA
Dugan said it would make sense to have a 10-year parking plan that could include potential projects such as the proposed garage.
Then officials seeking the OK for a parking project could tell the council, "Here's what we'd do. Here's how much it would cost. Here's how you'd get funding," he said.
Dugan said CARTA's new parking director will work with downtown retailers and others to address issues.
There are plans for a website showing downtown parking locations, he said.
White said River City aims to attract more retail downtown, and that offering affordable parking is part of that equation.
"How do you do that with what we have?" she asked.
Better signage directing people to parking garages would help too, White said. She also supports a master parking plan.
Officials said any downtown parking solution will involve Republic Parking System, which manages most lots and garages in the central city.
Jim Berry, chairman of Chattanooga-based Republic, said there are plenty of spaces in the central city.
"I think there's inventory downtown," Berry said.
But he said if there is new development around TVA's facility on 11th Street, a new garage would need a closer look.
White said that if Patten Towers at 11th and Market streets is to be redeveloped in the future, it also will need more parking.
Concerning pricing downtown, Berry said Republic owns only six locations and manages the remainder.
"We can't raise the rates unless the landowner, the people we're working for, is agreeable to do that," he said.
Berry said his company, which employs 2,600 people worldwide and up to 150 locally, generates revenues of about $360 million a year.