By Chris Wachowiak
I’ve been downtown for 15 years now, 12 of those as a business owner. I’ve heard the word “revitalization” thrown around more times than I’ve gotten parking tickets, and the next person who tells me “downtown has potential,” I swear I’ll scream.
Many of us downtowners believed when Larry Morrissey was first elected mayor, it would be the second coming of downtown. And now, into his third term, I feel we are on the cusp of some real progress.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there has been a step forward here and a step back there throughout Morrissey’s term, but this is not my point. My point is we’ve begun to see some real potential progress.
Rockford City Market is breaking record attendance every week so far in 2013, Friday Night Flix just broke its opening-night attendance, and Screw City Beer Fest sold out its 2013 VIP tickets in 30 minutes flat.
Now, include the addition of a business like The District, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary, and the expansion of City Market vendors opening storefronts (such as Bella Luna), and you have some serious strides in progress.
What about places to live? A hundred new places are slotted to open in 2014 in less than a half mile from Kryptonite’s doorsteps. All of this equals real opportunity for progress!
Then, amid all of this progress, many of us downtowners received an invite to discuss downtown parking. Parking is one of the biggest perceived obstacles to a successful downtown, aside from the baloney perception of safety (I assure you, downtown is safer than a bet on the Cubs winning a game).
Parking during the day is at a critical mass, it seems, while nighttime is wide open. The main reason downtown is packed during the day is the governmental needs (like going to court, jury duty, seeing your attorney and City Hall), and some shopping and eating. After 5 p.m., the energy changes, and the parking lots empty.
Limited reasons exist to come downtown at night at the moment … aside from the best dining in Rockford, the best nightclubs in Rockford, and the best entertainment and live music in Rockford.
Until last month, parking at night has been FREE, unless there was some event at the BMO Harris Bank Center or Coronado (which makes perfect sense). Otherwise, there just isn’t the density of draw to justify charging for parking at night.
Now, the parking dilemma. The city is saying it cannot afford to provide parking decks and manage parking decks and surface-level lots — nor properly maintain them once they are built. The city cannot monetize the status quo of parking downtown, and that is why they brought on ABM as a partner to update their system of parking into, it is hoped, a more economical way of running/maintaining parking for Rockford.
So, back to the cusp of real revitalization point. Here we sit, with an opportunity for real change and progress building to the possibility of a nighttime of density, and the threat of “pay-for-parking” gets thrown out.
Some remember parking meters being installed years ago, and those meters killing downtown businesses and windows being boarded up. Then, the city removed the meters and parts of the pedestrian mall, and boards began to come off the windows.
Twenty years later, we are on the brink of so-called “potential” change, and all I keep hearing in my mind is, “Those who do not know history are damned to repeat it.”
ABM seems to have its fingers on the pulse when it comes to running parking services and offering programs to benefit those who use it when it otherwise was never available before. However, those benefits will go out the window if the same person will have to walk two blocks from their parking spot AND pay 50 cents or $6 to park — all while they could just go to the east side and park for free.
Changing to a pay-for-parking, 24-7-365 model is not a stimulus program for small businesses to succeed in downtown Rockford. Until you have serious density and success for a period of time at all hours, you cannot risk the chance of this never-before-seen real potential.
Chris Wachowiak is owner of Kryptonite Bar, 308 W. State St., No. 110, Rockford. Read his blog at http://ChrisWachowiak.com. Do you know a 20-something who is doing something unique and should be recognized? E-mail Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him who, why and how to contact them.
From the June 12-18, 2013, issue