There has been an interesting transformation downtown over the course of the last year or so. Parking didn’t use to be an issue.
Back during the height of the Great Recession, one misguided special event supporter, unhappy with limits the city council was putting on public funding of special events, famously went door to door through the downtown to tell each of the local businesses that the city was dying and they needed to move their businesses elsewhere. To my knowledge, nobody paid him much attention. He had a bit of a point though: Most times, you could throw a rock down Main Street or Grand and not worry about hitting a parked car.
Things started changing a couple of years ago when the city council recruited a person to spearhead economic development efforts. Those efforts paid off, starting with the city’s business incubator that opened all but full.
By the first of this year, I was noticing that the Gloria Swanson lot was half full on a regular basis. I raised the alarm that things could get ugly by this year’s Chasco. The city staff and Chasco worked up new plans to allow the carnival to come to town without hurting the fledgling businesses that were beginning to fill up the long vacant suites adjacent to the lot.
Parking has always seemed to fill up on Friday and Saturday nights as folks headed to the local bars. The parking situation has both become more acute and spread throughout the week. Some examples:
The Dulcet has rented parking from a private weekday business so that they have adequate parking at night.
Parking on Main Street between Adams and Grand has suddenly become scarce during the daytime, presumably because of the crowds going to Johnny Grits for breakfast and lunch.
I had to park in the public lot east of the Verizon building Sunday after church so that my mom and I could join some old friends for lunch at Rose’s Bistro.
The private parking in the alley that runs behind my business is now regularly filled up. This is true from Norton’s Music all the way along the alley to Sam Williams’ office. You used to always be able to find a spot behind Roscoe’s, but that has now become Hess Chiropractic and those spaces stay full. One of the businesses down the block from me, St. Vincent-dePaul, has to park their fleet of business vehicles in the Swanson lot.
We are starting to see more instances of illegally parked cars getting towed. My city council colleague, Chopper Davis, raised the alarm several months back after one of his friends discovered that his car had been towed. The problem is not the increasing number of tow-away zone signs. The problem is that convenient parking has become a lot harder to find all week long.
Continued downtown redevelopment is going to continue to put pressure on the parking situation. Imagine what happens if the city has any success recruiting a grocery store, to open downtown. I can see that happening, particularly with our ongoing efforts to make it easy to live and work downtown.
The city has dusted off the concept of building a parking garage. We’ve had some preliminary discussions about the best place to put a garage, discussing both the Swanson lot and the lot just south of the west end of Railroad Square. We’ve settled on designing a garage for the south lot, but I suspect that we will need to look at the Swanson lot as well as the downtown continues to grow and the Hacienda reopens. The city has over 3 million dollars budgeted over the next two years for the garage. Now all we have to do is figure out how to come up with the 3 million dollars. One plan being floated is to use some of the proceeds from a proposed refinancing of the Community Development Agency’s (CRA) existing debt to cover the construction cost. There may be other options. We will explore them before we get much further down the road.
We are adding paved parking to the north side of Sims Park, including handicap parking for folks who want to visit the Historical Society. Parking has always been a bit problematic for the Historical Society and I believe we have a solution that is going to help them quite a bit.
We’re looking at getting as much of the Chasco carnival as possible into the expanded Sims Park / Orange Lake footprint next year. If we are successful, that will free up more of the Swanson lot for Fiesta goers. I’m optimistic that Chasco and the city can make this work.
Addressing the parking situation is a top priority. By starting that process now, we ought to be able to have additional parking available before the Hacienda reopens in a few years.
Rob Marlowe, Mayor