Meters, buying old theater lot among proposals
By Scott Bellile
North Water Street business owners say there aren’t enough parking spaces downtown for customers or themselves, so they are coming together to find a solution.
Downtown workers say New London’s parking faces obstacles: North Water Street tenants use public parking for longer than the permitted two hours. Customers naturally spend hours at appointment-based services compared to in-and-out shops. Occasional labor union meetings fill the downtown parking spots. And accessible spots are few for people with disabilities.
More than 150 shoppers called for change on a petition circulated by Custom Carpets By Gordy employee Wendy Schirpke. That figure doesn’t factor in the petitions other business owners are circulating.
Local business owners assembled an ad hoc committee on June 23 to discuss their problems. They met again at Custom Carpets by Gordy on July 1 to discuss with Police Chief Jeff Schlueter the current situation and to ponder solutions.
Enforcing parking rules
Schlueter said at the July 1 meeting that police are enforcing two-hour parking limits between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday on the North Water Street stretch from Shawano Street to North Pearl Street. Officers are marking motorists’ tires to see how long they remain parked.
Officers patrol downtown as often as possible to ticket violators, but they’re busy. They’re investigating a robbery and a homicide, plus New London police deal with a physical or sexual assault of a child on average of once every three days.
“Parking is kind of down on our list, and that’s why we’re relying upon the public to just follow the rules,” Schlueter said.
Schlueter said police can’t always ticket every two hours, but they respond promptly to any report from a business owner of a vehicle overstaying its welcome. Last year New London police wrote between 500 and 600 parking tickets.
Downtown public parking lots are located north of Easy Street Bar and Grill, east of Taft Park, west of Bult’s Quality Bake Shop, and in the Wolf River Plaza lot north of Grand Cinema Theatres.
Salon owners expressed concern at the meeting because their customers receive parking tickets due to their appointments exceeding the two-hour parking limit.
Schlueter said business owners could petition city council to extend the time limit. But currently he can’t ignore two-hour time limits for select groups such as salon customers.
“We can’t be biased,” Schlueter said. City laws need to be enforced fairly toward everyone, he said.
He supported his belief in fairness by stating he has ordered his own police officers and family members to be arrested for breaking laws before.
One suggestion was to reinstall parking meters, which were removed from city sidewalks in June 1980, according to the June 5, 1980 Press Star. The move was proposed by Alderman Don Allen, and the New London Chamber of Commerce supported it as an effort to bring more shoppers downtown.
If meters returned, they would encourage motorists to spend no more time downtown than they’re willing to pay.
“I’m not saying that cops want to go out and collect coins out of meters,” Schlueter said. “Believe me, that’s the last thing we want to do.”
Fifth District Alderman Dave Morack said the parking meter proposal surfaces at meetings every six years, goes to city council and dies.
Schirpke said she feels undecided about meters.
“I wonder about my customers, if they will park down here and pay a meter when they can go to my competitors for free,” Schirpke said.
Tabitha Meyer at River Edge Salon was in support of parking meters. She said downtown tenants continue to park on the street despite the two-hour rules.
“I don’t think your tenants are going to want to pay money to a meter,” Meyer said.
The Press Star attempted to get viewpoints from downtown tenants, but none would talk on the record.
Patty’s Hair Affair owner Patty Frank said downtown employees or tenants are in need of their own parking lot. Tenants comprise much of her customer parking lot.
“We want everything fair for everybody,” Frank said. “But we want New London to thrive, too. We want people to shop.”
Morack suggested contacting Fidelity Direct Leasing, proprietor of the lot where the former Wolf River Community Theatre was demolished on June 18. He said perhaps downtown businesses could band together and buy the lot for parking through a business improvement district initiative.
New London Public Works Director Jeff Bodoh said around six years ago he calculated a “very rough” estimate of the number of parking stalls that could fit where the community theater stood. The lot could fit seven parking stalls, including two handicapped, at an estimated construction cost of $21,000 ($3,000 per stall).
If adjacent Lincoln Court were closed and turned into parking, that number could raise to 16 stalls, including two handicapped. That construction cost would hover around $31,000 ($1,937.50 per stall).
These numbers may not be spot-on, Bodoh stressed.
“Boy that would be a nice parking lot,” Frank said. “It’s centered downtown, and boy that would make a lot of happy people in this town.”
Leasing parking stalls
Business owners have asked downtown businesses with large parking lots if they would consider leasing extra parking spaces to business owners.
Schirpke said she hopes leasing agreements could offer business owners reliable day-to-day parking in lots monitored by surveillance cameras and watchful workers.
“We don’t want our cars where we can’t see them,” Schirpke said. “We have enough [vandalism] in the back of our stores.”
Bill Bishop, branch manager for Bank Mutual on Park Street, estimated the bank owns 39 parking stalls across Pearl Street next to Familiar Grounds Coffee Shop. He said more discussion is needed with the corporate office, but he would be willing to lease around 20 stalls.
“We have ample parking,” Bishop said.
“We don’t have the challenge that they have downtown,” he said.
Kent Rusch, co-owner of Amazing Low Prices Furniture Store on Wisconsin Street, said he would consider leasing a few of his 25 parking spaces. And Harry Radix, CEO at First State Bank on W. North Water Street, said he will bring up the topic to the bank’s board because his lot has more than 40 stalls.
“I don’t know what the solution is, but I know we have issues,” Radix said in regards to storefront parking downtown.
Topic to gain momentum
The parking issue could snowball in the coming months. Schlueter’s meeting with shop owners on July 1 indicated interest on behalf of the city, and business owners were scheduled to talk at a public works meeting Tuesday after the Press Star went to print.
Last week New London Mayor Gary Henke showed support for a change in downtown parking at the June 30 economic development meeting.
Although not officially on the committee’s agenda, Morack informed committee members several downtown business owners were talking about the subject and planning meetings.
“It’s an issue out there and I certainly think that the economic development committee needs to take a look at it in the future,” said Morack.
New London Mayor Gary Henke agreed.
“You know, if Curwood came to council looking for more parking, we’d be tripping over ourselves to help them out,” said Henke.
“This is no different,” he said.
Downtown businesses may dwarf a manufacturing industry in terms of size, but Henke said together shops act as an important part of the city’s economy.
“Collectively these business owners are an important part of the tax base, and they employ a number of people,” Henke said.
John Faucher contributed to this article.