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Guest Column: Making positive changes to downtown parking

July 31, 2013

By Jim Phelps

In our rush to monetize every event and venue in our redevelopment efforts downtown, we are cutting off our nose to spite our newly-redeveloping face.

Parking is one of those issues. While parking has always been a challenge for anyone who wishes to visit downtown for more than an hour or two, now that we have sold off our parking enforcement to a private company, we seem to be further disconnected from the very same public officials who consummated the deal.

Parking on public lots is $43 a month for everyone who is not either a not-for-profit or a resident. John Q. Public and Joe Corporation pay $43 each month ($516 annually) while residents pay $10 a year. If you happen to have one of those high-paying not-for-profit jobs, you will only pay one-quarter that rate — $10.75 a month ($129 annually). Not-for-profits also get a special perk that for-profits don’t; they get to hog up to 10 percent of all surface parking on many city surface lots at a rate that is $387 a year cheaper than that for those for-profit businesses that we are aggressively trying to lure down here and entrepreneurial startups that can’t afford these additional costs. We have forgotten basic economics in Rockford. Those businesses we would like to have come downtown can locate their businesses anywhere, in any strip mall or business location where their rent includes parking for their customers and themselves.

Now, while it is arguably a nice thing to give both residents and not-for-profits this largesse (it may even be socially responsible to do so), the one thing it doesn’t do is help build the sense that we are all in this together as a community. Many communities I have lived in would never do this because it only causes divisions among us. Most municipalities of our size have low universal rates for their public surface lots. My hometown of Eau Claire, Wis., has wonderfully maintained surface lots for $23 a month.

It is simply a matter of supply and demand. If our rates are too high, we will never fully monetize these surface lots because no one is going to use them. If rates are too low, we will have fully-occupied surface lots and high demand for more of them. There needs to be a better price set for our supply to encourage their full use. To do that, we will first have to lower our price to meet that demand equilibrium we wish to see. Second, we will have to charge everyone the same rate so we are all in this together as a community. No special deals, just one price for everyone, but a reasonable price for everyone in our community. Third, we need a more welcoming and more community-oriented weekend rate — free parking after 6 p.m., Friday, free all day Saturdays and Sundays, including major holidays.

Let’s make these changes to help our redevelopment along and keep customers downtown longer than an hour or two at a time.

Jim Phelps is owner of Phoenix Traders, 215 Seventh St., Rockford.

From the July 31-Aug. 6, 2013, issue

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