Robert Haines no longer looks for parking on Main Street in historic Ellicott City. Instead, he heads straight for a municipal parking lot behind the local post office.
"Sundays and Saturdays, it's really hectic," said Mr. Haines, a Glen Burnie resident who frequents the shopping district. "You won't get a spot on Main Street."
Mr. Haines is one of hundreds of shoppers who often have a difficult time finding convenient parking in the tight, narrow district.
Merchants say they're not sure if they lose business because of the parking shortage. But some say parking is a year-round headache that turns into a migraine during the busy holiday season.
Historic Ellicott City "was not geared for cars," said Barry Gibson, president of the Ellicott City Business Association. The Colonial-era founders of Ellicott City "never planned to have a couple of thousand cars here."
To study ways to improve parking, county officials are applying for a $10,000 state grant that would be matched by private donations, the county, the Ellicott City Business Association, and the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit community improvement group.
"An outside consultant will look at how parking spaces are being utilized right now," said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the county's planning and zoning department.
County officials expect to learn early next year whether they have been awarded the grant.
In the heart of Historic Ellicott City, roughly a two-block area from Ellicott Mills Drive to Maryland Avenue, there are about 560 on- and off-street parking spaces for about 230 apartments, retail and professional businesses, Mr. Gibson said.
And while there is a relative abundance of parking spots in the western part of the shopping district, there is a dearth in the eastern part, he said. The eastern end has about 75 parking spaces, compared with about 350 in the western part, where a 262-space municipal lot eases parking pains, he said.
"You can see where you're deficient," Mr. Gibson said.
Competition for spaces means many customers are forced to park farther away from stores than they would like, merchants said.
"Everybody wants to park closest," said Mary Mendoza, a clerk at Katydid, a Main Street store that sells gifts and furnishings.
Through the years, merchants have devised ways to efficiently use existing parking spaces. Their efforts range from suggesting that customers shop on less busy weekdays to requiring employees to park in off-street lots, thus freeing up spaces for potential customers on Main Street.
"Nobody here is allowed to park on Main Street," said Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz, co-owner of Great Panes stained glass shop on Main Street, who requires her workers to park elsewhere. "It defeats your business if you park in front."
John Fisher of Fisher's Bakery has gone to greater extremes to ease the frustration of customers looking for parking. His employees sometimes deliver cakes to customers while they wait in their cars outside the Main Street bakery.
"Employees will stand out in front of the shop and hand over the cakes," Mr. Fisher said.
And while that doesn't happen every day, it takes place too often for the baker.
"Parking has been a problem since the town was formed," said Mr. Fisher, who wants to see a multitiered parking garage serve the area.
A parking garage is one of the options the consultant would study if the county is awarded the six-month grant next year, Ms. McLaughlin said.
Although many merchants support building a parking garage, it would be a costly endeavor, she said. "Everybody has a lot of ideas, but nobody is a professional . . . An outside consultant would be able to look at a smorgasbord" of parking possibilities, she said.