By Joe Bachman
“Sales have plummeted.”
WISCONSIN RAPIDS — Collective sentiments from downtown business owners that have expressed major concerns over the effects of a recently acquired parking lot used by River Block employees.
In February of 2015, the Mead-Witter Foundation purchased the River Block building for $1.5 million dollars, which is currently being used for various Wood County departments. As a part of the purchase, they also acquired the parking lot on Jackson St. between Second and Third Ave. North., making it off limits for non-employees. This change went into effect sometime last month.
It’s important to note that the lot did not belong to the businesses on the Mead-Witter block prior to the purchase by the Mead-Witter Foundation, though used heavily by customers of those establishments.
“The county never came to talk to us about the parking,” said Trading Post manager Sonia Hanneman. “Someone from the city had told us a year ago that they were doing something with the parking, but that there were different options — so that’s where we were left hanging.”
The parking lot in question is now full of vehicles from River Block employees, located right by The Trading Post, Party Time Cakes, From the Ground Up, Shaw Lee Restaurant, and many other local area businesses that share the space. According to some owners, a filled lot with no place for their customers to park is hurting their establishments in more ways than one.
“Somebody drives by thinking we’re packed — if everyone drives by thinking we’re packed, they’re going to go somewhere else,” said Hanneman. “People really don’t want to walk here from the mall.”
“My customers are complaining just to order a cake — just to spend 10 minutes to order or pick up a cake — there’s nowhere to park.” said Party Time Cakes owner Michelle Goodwin. “I love what I do, I love my customers, and I love this town; but I do feel like the businesses, and myself included, are being bullied out.”
“It’s literally affecting all who pay rent in the Mead-Witter block.”
Owners have come up with a solution to the parking problem, which is to clear out the 16 spots of visitor parking for the River Block building for businesses on the Mead-Witter block — these spots have been traditionally used for these businesses before the River Block took over the parking spaces.
However, there may be another avenue in the form of a 99-year lease that precedes the River Block parking lot purchase.
According to business owners, Gary Rosencrans, owner of Gary’s Coins and Stamps, has stated that there is a standing 99-year lease on the first row of visitor parking in the contested area, with 87 years left on the lease. Rosencrans could not be reached for comment, so the lease in question remains unconfirmed at this time, though it is being searched for by business owners.
Furthermore, some believe that the city should find a way to intervene, even if this may be a county issue.
“The city has to get involved,” said Shaw Lee Restaurant owner Nancy Sii. “They need to take care of their people.”
However, through all of this, county officials are confident that an eventual compromise can be made, as Wood County Board Chairperson Lance Pliml points out.
“I want to make clear that the county didn’t take or acquire any portion or other property of a local business in that area,” said Pliml. “I think people get used to parking in certain areas, and if it’s an inconvenience for somebody to park in a little different location on the same block, we certainly want to look into that.”
According to Pliml, there are many available parking spots within a block of the businesses.
“I’ve driven around the block on several occasions in the past week, and this morning there were 40 available parking spots within a block,” said Pliml. “We just had the Elk’s lot paved this week, and that should hopefully further aid in any crowding — but we do have enough parking space down there to accommodate every single employee and customer that comes into the area.”
Pliml doesn’t see a short-term solution that involves taking away any spots from the River Block, however, there is an Executive Committee for the Annex and River Block Parking meeting scheduled for Thursday, July 6. The City Times will have more on this story as events unfold.