Walker Consultants Senior Vice President John Dorsett (at right) fielded questions from the audience during a public information meeting on the city of Winona’s new parking study.
by CHRIS ROGERS
The city’s new parking study didn’t put to rest the longstanding debate over whether downtown Winona has ample parking or a serious parking problem, but it got people talking.
“I know people that haven’t developed buildings because of the constraint in parking,” Big River Magazine Publisher Reggie McLeod stated at a meeting on Monday. “That’s why Merchants [Bank] built a parking lot … because Winona has a parking problem,” Downtown Dental owner Stacey Mounce said, referring to the lot the bank built around its downtown headquarters years ago.
After listening to these arguments, Nate and Ally’s owner Dennis McEntaffer spoke up. “I don’t think we have a parking problem downtown,” he said. On the Winona Post’s Facebook page, Eric Shurson agreed: “I honestly can never remember a time where I was not able to park in downtown Winona. There were times where I’ve had to walk a block or two at times, but that is to be expected in any downtown area.”
What the study said
Last summer, city officials promised to complete a downtown parking study, in part in response to downtown business owners’ concerns about the city’s plans to turn one of the largest public parking lots — known as municipal lot number seven, the movie theater parking lot, and 60 Main Street — into an apartment complex.
Produced by Walker Consultants and released last week, the parking study concluded that Winona has enough existing parking spaces within a five-minute walk of the downtown core. Using a combination of parking counts collected by city staff and its own counts taken on two days last year, Walker Consultants reported that just 57 percent of publicly available downtown spaces were full. While some blocks were parking “hot spots,” the study found largely empty parking lots on the edge of downtown and in Levee Park. The consultants analyzed future parking demand if the 60 Main Street project and other proposed apartments are built, and forecasted that the future occupancy of downtown parking spots would be a manageable 70 percent.
The consultants advised the city that spending millions to build a parking ramp was not a good idea right now, but said that there were a number of less expensive things the city could do to alleviate parking hot spots by encouraging people to use underutilized parking lots on the edge of downtown. “You have an employee parking problem,” Walker Consultants Senior Vice President John Dorsett said. By stepping up enforcement of existing rules, tweaking the rules to encourage employees of downtown businesses to park in long-term lots on the edge of downtown, marketing the availability of underutilized lots, and encouraging businesses to enter into shared parking agreements that make better use of limited space, the city can open up more spaces for customers and visitors, Dorsett and his colleague, David Garza, stated. Garza pointed to the parking lot on the East End of Levee Park as a prime example of an underutilized lot. “It’s 76 spaces. That’s not 200 spaces, but that’s a pretty considerable number of spaces,” Garza said.
People are going to have to walk, the consultants stated. “It’s unreasonable to expect parking at door fronts in a downtown environment,” Garza said. The city is missing handicap-accessible spaces on some blocks, and should add spaces for people who cannot walk, Garza added. The good news is downtown Winona is compact and highly walkable, he stated.
The consultants also said that compared to many other cities, a high percentage of publicly available parking in downtown Winona is owned by the city. “The city has a big stake in the parking market here,” Garza said, adding, “We think, really, it should be a shared responsibility between the public and private sector.”
How Winonans reacted
Winonans’ reactions to the study ranged from “of course” Winona has sufficient parking to “total failure on this ‘study.’” Some people did not believe the study’s data accurately portrayed parking availability.
“I’m disappointed in the results of this survey. We spent money on this survey to find out we don’t have a parking problem when a lot of us who live here feel we do have a parking problem,” Mounce said. McLeod stated that parking availability really does have an impact on downtown businesses, and the lack of parking may have encouraged some businesses to relocate to Highway 61.
Winona Planning Commission member Todd Paddock and Mounce found some common ground in diagnosing the problem but had different ideas about how to solve it. “I would agree with [Mounce]. Winonans are not going to think that walking for five minutes is reasonable. For better or worse, they’re just not,” Paddock said. “On the other hand, they’re not going to want to pay for a $370,000 [per year] parking ramp either.”
“I want a ramp,” Mounce said.
Bea Hoffman pointed out a phenomenon that city Planning Commission members have noticed, as well: at malls or big box stores, people are willing to walk a couple hundred feet across giant parking lots, but they are not willing to walk the same distance to park around the corner downtown.
Garza echoed a point that McEntaffer made last fall: a downtown environment that requires people to park and walk creates foot traffic between stores that is helpful to downtown businesses.
The consultants recommended encouraging employee parking on the fringe of downtown to open up space for customers in the core, but what about downtown apartment dwellers? “Where are all those people who have apartments downtown going to park?” Mounce asked. “My tenants — I can’t tell them to park three blocks away and carry their groceries,” agreed landlord Adam Cloeter.
Right now, the majority of the city’s parking spaces are split up between two-hour spaces and 12-hour spaces, with a few one-hour, 30-minute, or even shorter time limits. Winona Deputy Chief of Police Tom Williams wanted Dorsett and Garza’s input on the whether the city should change its time limits or the number of spaces in each time-limit category. Garza didn’t offer Williams a detailed recommendation, but said that, in general three hours is a good time limit for downtown shoppers and that it appears people are currently overstaying the two-hour limits.
With the exception of Pam Eyden, City Council members were fairly mum at the meeting. “I do think that we’ve got a lot of people parking long-term in what should logically be short-term spaces. But it’s also pretty expensive to add another full-time employee,” Eyden said of the consultants’ recommendation that the city employ a full-time parking enforcement officer. She expressed interest in building more modest parking ramps — perhaps just two stories — with solar panels on top. In an interview, Dorsett explained that to provide the greatest cost efficiency in terms of parking-spaces-per-dollar, bigger ramps are better than small ones.
Parking is a problem in downtown Winona, Eyden said. “One thing the city has to do is make this a priority problem to solve,” she stated.
If the city can successfully move employees to fringe lots, it should make a big difference on the availability of downtown parking, city manager Steve Sarvi said. “They said no ramp is needed right now, and I tend to agree with them,” Sarvi added. Six million dollars is a lot of money, and the city should not spend that kind of money if it’s not needed; however, a ramp may be needed someday, Sarvi stated. “This is the beginning of a process for us to better understand and make adaptations going forward,” he said.
It will be up to city staff or council members to propose making the changes the consultants recommended or to propose other action. Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this issue.
The full report is available online at https://issuu.com/winonapost.