Scott Lee might stop you in the street to talk about parking.

“Especially if I see someone staring at a parking meter or looking at a parking garage, I just ask them what they think about it, to get their assessment — they don’t know who I am — just to see what they think about the parking,” he said. “I want to hear ideas. I never shoot an idea down. … I can’t fix something if I don’t know about it.”

Lee started work as the city of Colorado Springs’ Parking Enterprise Director Nov. 26, overseeing the city’s three parking garages (with nearly 2,500 spaces) and more than 2,000 on-street parking meters. He’s also tasked with a strategic role in managing parking as a key economic driver in the city’s growing downtown — and he’s ready.

“As the mayor says, I eat, sleep and breathe parking,” Lee said. “When most people hear ‘parking,’ their eyes glaze over. For me it’s like, if somebody asks about parking, boy they’re going to get an earful because I love to talk about it.”

Most recently, Lee served as parking service manager in the city of San Luis Obispo, Calif., overseeing the implementation of electric vehicle charging stations, increased garage usage, and revamped equipment in all parking structures.

This week he spoke with the Business Journal about the challenges of developing and managing parking, how parking shapes business, and why his goal is for the rest of us to give it no thought at all.

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How does parking impact business and development?

If you have too much parking, it probably means your economy’s in a downturn — because there are not people coming to your downtown core or employees there using those spaces. If you don’t have enough, it can lead to an economic downturn because people can’t come for the services that are downtown; they’re fighting for it. They’ll just say ‘Gee, I’ll just drive to the periphery neighborhood, or I’ll go to Manitou Springs and get what I need, because I can’t find parking in downtown.’ So people stop coming. So it’s really a balancing act of providing the right amount of parking for the need without overbuilding it — because that’s a huge expense too, if you’re building a structure, that’s millions and millions of dollars that may go underutilized. … 

But you can’t build structures overnight, I tell people. It’s a five-year process generally from the time you decide you need this garage to the time you’re opening your garage. That’s a good rule of thumb. So you have to be working closely with economic development and developers and the council as well as the public, to say ‘Where do you foresee the demand?’ and be able to then plan accordingly to have it open just before a building opens or a developer is completing a residential project. … You have to really be careful of how you handle parking. But here, the concept with the mayor and city council is that parking should be involved from the beginning.

What are Colorado Springs’ greatest parking challenges?

There are opportunities. They’re not challenges — I look at everything as an opportunity. You’ve got a rate structure that’s been in place for a lot of years. Now, that will scare a lot of people but by generating additional parking revenue we [can] put it back into parking-related services, whether it be streetscapes, additional meters, upgraded meters, additional options for how to pay, building new structures to meet demand, things like that. There’s also the fairness of it. Are we charging the right hours of parking? We’ve got 8-6, 8-5 operation now — do we need to expand our hours? Do we need to go longer on weekends, consider Sundays? These are all things that the council and the mayor have tasked me with looking at and making recommendations on.

So I’m meeting with the downtown association, with business owners, with developers to get their take, as well as private citizens to say, ‘What do you think about this? What can parking do to help the city be the best we can be here?’ We have a great city going; the revival of this town has been amazing in the last five to 10 years. We in parking want to be a catalyst to help that continue — so how can we do that? What can we do to position ourselves so we aren’t the anchor [stopping] the city growing as fast as they want to, and can?

Are we likely to see on-street parking prices go up?

It’s a consideration — I think it is likely that that will happen. And it usually is a gradual, over-time plan. I always tell people I prefer to do a five-year plan with rate increases over that time frame, not just a one and done. Because then you wait and wait and wait and all of a sudden — boom, you have to jump it up. If you do it as a gradual increment, people see it coming, they get used to it, it’s conditioned into them, and it’s also then the equity of ‘Hey, we’re paying for what we’re getting now’ and not just, ‘Those guys got it for five years at that rate and now I come in and suddenly I have to pay twice as much because of what they didn’t pay for all along.’ So it’s keeping up with what the standard is in parking.

What was your path into this career?

Oh, I’ve been everything. I’ve been a chief financial officer before, I’ve run my own businesses, I’ve been in health care before, so I’ve had a diverse background. But from that I came into it — I actually started out in parking enforcement at Montana State University and then moved my way up through it; took over at Montana State, then the city of Bozeman, then the city of Madison, then San Luis Obispo, then here. So I’ve moved my way up through the ranks, I’ve done basically everything you can do in parking, and I love it. … And it’s got unique challenges. It’s really something most people take for granted — and that’s what we want. We want it to be there when you want it there, at a price where you say, ‘Gee, that’s reasonable for me to get.’ And yet it’s a commodity; you’ve got to price it appropriately depending on your jurisdiction, your location.

Is smart parking something you’re thinking about?

Sure. There are definitions of smart parking where you’ve got mobile pay apps, there’s options like paying by space, paying by license plate, to allow flexibility where the person parks. There’s advantages and disadvantages and again, it’s not one size fits all. When I came here I told the mayor that I’m not going to make wholesale changes right away; I’m not even going to make recommendations. He at least gave me 45 days to come up with my list, because I want to see what this city is operating with and what will then likely be the best fit for it. Too many people come in and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to scrap parking meters and we’ve got to go to a mobile app,’ or ‘We have to raise rates right away because they’re too low.’ And that might just stagnate the economy quickly and that’s not a good thing. There is technology though, out there, that can improve almost every aspect of parking. It’s just whether that’s appropriate for our environment at this time, and whether we can afford it.

Where are you from?

Wisconsin. I was born and raised in the Midwest. I went to school there, worked five years on the East Coast, then 20 years in California, then back to Montana, then back to Wisconsin, then back to California, then here. The neat thing about parking [management] is if you’re good at it … it offers unique opportunities, and when they want a certain skill set they’ll recruit you to wherever. It’s fun. But we’re ready to settle down, we’re ready to be close to family and just stop traveling around as much for work.

This was the opportunity of a lifetime in my opinion, to be close to family and with a great opportunity to work with great people. … Working as collaboratively as the city does was a huge decider for me. I’ve seen the infrastructure changes that this mayor and council have put forth and done to say infrastructure is important to the city. They’ve been able to explain it well to the citizens to get the passage of 2C and all the other measures to fund all these projects, which means they can articulate their vision to the layperson out there — that’s great. That means they’re doing something right. They’ve not only got a good vision but they’re articulating well and the citizens are feeling comfortable with them.