People will soon have to pay to park in a Waterfront Park lot. | Photo by Tony Pacheco

Correction appended.

The Waterfront Development Corp. Wednesday afternoon approved a plan to charge Waterfront Park users $3 to park; the vote was 6 to 3.

The $3 fee, which will be good for three hours of parking, is estimated generate roughly $215,000 for WDC after fees are paid to the company that manages the parking operations.

David Karem, president of the WDC, said the organization will likely contract Riverside Parking to manage the parking payment system. Park-goers could start paying to park sometime this fall, he said.

The board started considering implementing a parking fee after realizing that the WDC would face an ongoing budget shortfall year after year if action was not taken. The shortfall is caused by the loss of state funding. Last fiscal year, the shortfall, which amounted to $210,000, was covered by a one-time allocation from Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government.

Matt Thornton, chairman of the WDC board, noted in the meeting that the parking fee is “widely unpopular, but however at the end of the day, we have a fiduciary duty to produce a balanced budget.”

He later added: “This is our city’s front door, and the way it is maintained is very important to all of us, and it is not simply another park in the city. We maintain it to a higher standard.”

During the meeting, board member Oliver Barber recommended charging $3 as compared to $4 or $5, which also were on the table.

“It’s the least amount of pain we can cause at this point,” he said, responding to criticism that the parking fee would hurt the city’s poorest citizens.

Barber stated that if the state or another entity wanted to step up and cover the budget shortfall going forward, then paid parking could be eliminated.

“This is not written in blood. It is not set in stone,” he said.

Following the vote, Louisville Metro Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, tweeted his disapproval.

“No public hearing, no review of public comments sent to @wfpark but an unelected board charges for parking. It’s wrong & should be reversed.”

In an emailed statement, Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, D-4, called for a fund-raising campaign to keep the parking free.

“This is disgraceful. It has been reported Louisville is the fourth most segregated city in the United States. This decision will promote segregation at a time when we must all do everything we can to bring everyone together, Sexton Smith said. “Currently, our Waterfront Park is the most inclusive, diverse place in our community.

“Last Saturday a mother told me she brought her children here to celebrate her two year old son’s birthday because it’s the only place she can afford,” she continued. “The little money she had was spent to make brownies and buy paper plates. My heart goes out to the thousands of people in our community who can relate to her story. We must not balance the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it. It’s time to launch a serious fundraising campaign to Keep Our Waterfront Park Free!”

Prior to the meeting, hundreds of residents had reached out through emails and phone calls to the WDC to express their thoughts on the parking fee, Insider Louisville reported earlier today. The majority were against it, but some said they understood why the organization needed to start charging for parking.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer sent his own email noting that he does not support the proposal to charge for parking five days a week.

“I respect the Waterfront Board and the committee that reviewed the the details of this proposal,” Fischer wrote. “I understand there are operational challenges. However, I cannot support the committee’s recommendation of 24-hour paid parking five (5) days a week. This park is our community living room, a gathering place for Louisville. I do not support creating an unnecessary impediment to access this beautiful place that represents the best of our collective goods.”

Fischer asked the board to look at increasing special event fees, which the WDC did two years ago, and take another look at how to charge for event parking only. In the letter, Fischer also suggested a third and previously unstated option — tap into a $13.6 million foundation fund for Waterfront Park.

“It’s hard for me to understand why we need to charge for parking when we have this large balance,” he wrote. “I understand there has been prior policy to use these dollars for capital expenses, but surely we can utilize it until we determine what happens in the next state budget cycle.”

The state previously allocated funds toward the Waterfront Park, but no money was awarded to the park in the most recent state budget.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed comments made by WDC board member Oliver Barber to David Karem, president of the WDC.