By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher
Some of us who remember say, “1983. That’s when the plywood started to come off the windows of downtown’s storefronts.”
Yes, youngsters, the 1980s recession was in full swing. The City of Rockford under Mayor John MacNamara removed the parking meters from downtown streets in 1983.
As soon as that happened, despite heavy ticketing for one- and two-hour parking areas (jokingly called “city coupons”), shoppers and businesses started to return to downtown. But more help was needed.
1984. The MetroCentre provides $1 million to remove the West State Street section of the 1975 downtown mall, and traffic and new businesses begin to substantially step up.
2009. Tearing out the remaining Main Street section of the downtown mall begins to cap off the success of revival in the rest of downtown, particularly Block 5.
When I say “the success of revival,” I am echoing a statement made many times by Mike Leifheit, owner of the Irish Rose, 519 E. State St.
“Downtown is already a success. We just need to realize it and say it more often,” Mike frequently says to those who say, “We need this or that for downtown to be a success.”
Comparing today’s thriving downtown to the boarded-up windows of the 1980s, Leifheit is very correct. He also points out we have fewer vacant storefronts than most malls.
You don’t pay for parking at a mall; although it is rightly pointed out by city officials, someone (mall investors, retailers and customers) pays for the resurfacing and snow plowing.
City officials, most recently Ald. Venita Hervey (D-5) at the June 5 hearing on public parking downtown, assert Chicago charges for public parking in their parking decks, surface lots and retail area streets.
As I strongly asserted at that meeting, “Rockford is not Chicago!”
Downtown Rockford, in particular, does not have anywhere near the retail or residential density or income of downtown Chicago. To compare the two is like comparing an apple to Lake Michigan.
If someone can’t park in front of my business at 128 N. Church St., they frequently complain about having to walk a block or two and the two-legged “seagulls” from Chicago crying at them for spare change as they wait for the “Hilton of Homeless Shelters” to open for dinner.
We get plenty of Chicago’s homeless, public housing residents and parolees, and now we are going to get their parking practices and rates, too?
Even though this is one more “generous” offer, I hope all downtown businesses rise up and raise holy hell, as opposed to unholy hell, and oppose parking fees for public streets and surface parking lots downtown. Free parking is an “apple of our eyes,” despite the continuing heavy dispensing of “city coupons.”
Our apples are growing just fine right now — they are quite delicious, as one can confirm in the many new and established restaurants on both sides of the river. By the way, how in the hell is a waitperson making minimum wage and relying on tips going to pay for parking at work all day or night? That would add up to more than a week’s wages or more over a year!
Despite their heavenly and dutiful approach to business, we do not need more tax/fee-hungry, snake-oil salesmen to worm up our good fruit by promising this revenue will solve all the problems of downtown parking! We already have one of the highest tax rates in the entire country — do not worm us to death by another fee here, another fee there.
Everyone expects to pay for parking in a parking deck. We’ll compromise and give that freebie up. But take away our free parking in surface lots and on our business streets, and some officials will be looking for a new job come next election time. Businesses will suffer.
I do not want to return to the 1980s! We’ve come a long way, baby, but don’t get greedy just as downtown is really getting rolling.
Why did the malls succeed? Free parking was part of it, but public perception that malls were the place to be was a big part of it.
As Chris Wachowiak points out in his column this week (see “Chrisisms,” page A14), Rockford City Market and Friday Night Flix have broken all attendance records this year. Many, many of those people would not attend if they had to pay for parking. Don’t ruin the perception.
We don’t need anything to break the momentum building to make downtown an even greater success that might someday justify a comparison to downtown Chicago.
For those who are considering a plywood box for the future of their political careers, a return to the stupid parking practices of the 1980s is like bobbing for apples in Lake Michigan. We’re smarter than that, aren’t we?
From the June 12-18, 2013, issue