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Perfect storm: Why it's time to build a parking structure



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February 25, 2014 | 02:38 PM
Part 1 of a series

It’s like a childhood crush.

You fall fast, but she’s not the one you’re meant to take to the altar.

The idea of tearing down homes on Wisconsin Street across from Central Denison School to make way for a parking structure seemed like a good idea at the time.

It stemmed from a conversation between the local school district and the city, who would have teamed up on the project. But when the idea was raised about a month ago, public reaction was swift and strong against it.

Tearing down four homes for a parking structure in a largely residential area just didn’t sit well — even with those who floated this trial balloon.

Luckily, the city and school snapped out of it before this fatal attraction got any deeper.

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It’s the latest chapter in the city’s decades old saga of not enough parking but nowhere to go.

This is the first of a three-part series on the subject.

This week we’ll focus on the status quo. Next week: Why a parking structure makes sense. Lastly, we’ll explain to our taxpayers what’s in it for them.

The parking issue has been studied to death. Over coffee. On the floor of the city council. And in several studies that dealt with actual facts.

The problem is no mystery: The city of Lake Geneva doesn’t have enough parking to hold the multitude of visitors who come here every summer.

There are some who wish those visitors would just go away and leave our wonderful city for themselves. But, like it or not, the rest of the world has discovered Lake Geneva. That started about the time of the Chicago fire and if some citizens believe it’s going to stop any time soon, they’ve been smoking some of that Colorado weed.

So, by now, they should at least consider how we can make the best of it. For the rest of us, who recognize Lake Geneva’s economic life blood is tourism, there’s been too much hand-wringing for too many years.

A study held last summer pretty much summed up what other studies, and common sense, have long determined: The city needs more downtown parking for at least the summer.

Whether all this huff and puff is worthwhile for such a small portion of the year, is a subject for a later discussion.

So where do we stand now?

A critical mass has formed.

People as diverse as downtown leader Kevin Fleming and former mayor Speedo Condos believe a parking structure is needed.

We have a new head for the chamber of commerce who is bursting with new ideas and would love to see the parking issue resolved.

Mayor Jim Connors and alderwoman Sarah Hill have dedicated themselves toward some sort of resolution.

And, most important, the clock is ticking.

There’s a pot of money, about $8 million, sitting in a TIF fund. That’s about the amount needed for a high-quality parking structure. But the TIF fund sunsets in 2017.

A referendum must be held to approve any city expenditure of more than $1.1 million.

Since the money is already available in TIF, and wouldn’t require any further increase in taxes, this seems like a time when the voters are most likely to swallow that pill. Even that is about a 50-50 proposition. The odds of it passing without money already in the bank seem almost nil.

As a result, it’s pretty much do or die time for a parking structure.

City officials have been looking at possible sites the last few weeks.

That site across from Central Denison died under an avalanche of anger.

Also eliminated was a site one block east on Wisconsin Street.

It would have required the purchase of several buildings and a larger area is needed.

There was some discussion of putting the lot at the current location of the U.S. Bank. That has also been rejected. Just too much hassle and too many what ifs to navigate.

Some people have mentioned relocating the post office and putting a parking structure there, but no one in a position of authority sees that as a viable solution. Apparently, the P.O. was approached several years ago and there were just too many hurdles.

So we’re left with two possibilities: Behind the old theater or behind what was McCullough’s Drug Store.

They both have the advantage of being all or mostly owned by the city. They also are the site of existing surface lots. The disadvantage of such sites is that the surface spaces wouldn’t be available for parking during construction of the parking structure.

That’s where we stand.

The days of flirting with wanna-bes are over.

It’s time to settle down with something that will survive the trials of a tough marriage between the business community and our citizens, be as attractive as it is practical, and stand the test of time.

Next week: Why? Why? Why?

For those wanting to delve into the minutia of parking and traffic, they can go to the city website. Just Google parking information — city of Lake Geneva. On that page there are a couple of references. On the far right there’s a summary of a book on why parking isn’t free. Near the bottom of the center portion is a link to Downtown Parking Study Needs final report. (Don’t let the title fool you. It is the final report.)

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.

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