A toll of 30 empty shops littering Bognor Regis town centre means free parking is a must, according to the town’s chamber of commerce.
Chamber vice-chairman Ian Harding said the number of vacant premises made a fresh approach to charging motorists was needed.
He told last Friday’s meeting of Bognor Regis Civic Society: “Times have changed and the thinking behind parking has to change.
“We have the rise of internet shopping and out-of-town shopping. Free parking is common sense and business sense.
“We are 100 per cent for this idea. We think it’s practical and it will work.
“Things are going to get very tough in the next few months.
“We did a survey on January 7 and there were 26 empty retail units here. That has now gone up to 30.
“That will continue to rise. We are facing, as is the rest of the country, a three year economic blizzard.
“We are in a recession. Motorists are penalised for coming into the town centre.
“If Arun District Council really mean what they say about economic regeneration, here’s one idea they can do straight away and get instant results from.”
Mr Harding’s plea was made during a near two-hour intense debate about free parking between the civic society and Brighter Bognor representatives Stan Jonas and Peter Coles.
Hugh Coster, the vice-chairman of the civic society, outlined its proposals for two hours’ free parking in central Bognor. It is backed by the chamber, the TBI business group and the town council.
He said a three-year pilot project would cost up to £192,000 based on the figures for the scheme in Littlehampton. This expense could be lessened because some revenue would still be gained from motorists who wanted to stay for longer, car park sponsorship and advertising on the free parking discs.
The money could come from some of the Sainsbury’s £500,000 donation to central Bognor and the interest from the £2.7m Butlins paid for a longer lease for its holiday site.
It was unfair to expect Bognor’s traders to contribute towards the cost as they did with £7,000 a year in Littlehampton.
“They were buoyant times when the Littlehampton scheme started 14 years ago. It’s not like that now,” he said.
“All traders are suffering at the moment. Free parking works which is why all the out-of-town sites and all the large shopping malls have it. It brings people in and makes them come back.”
Mr Jonas said BRighter Bognor considered Bognor and Littlehampton should be treated the same.
The cost for each trader to contribute towards a free parking scheme would be less than £2 a year.
“While we sympathise very much with local businesses struggling to cope with the recession, they have been offered the chance to take part in free parking four times when times have been better.
“They have rejected it. This seems to us they have little faith in the idea that free parking is a universal panacea rather than that they are mean.
“There are a lot of reasons why motorists don’t come into town centres – traffic congestion, lack of available parking in the right places, poor facilities and internet shopping.”
He repeated his group’s view the planned new Morrisons store, with 89 extra parking spaces, offered the perfect chance for limited free parking to be provided.
But he said BRighter Bognor did agree with the civic society that the £2.7m from Butlins should benefit Bognor.