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Downtown Brainerd parking in spotlight as council talks maintaining fewer lots

Among the recommendations discussed was the idea of discontinuing the city's lease on the Burlington Northern parking lot off Front Street.

Burlington Northern lot
The Burlington Northern parking lot off Front Street in Brainerd is leased by the city and then rented to residents for off-street parking. The city may discontinue leasing the lot in 2021. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
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Should Brainerd be in the business of parking?

The city’s new parking commission doesn’t think so and told the city council as much.

The commission, made up of residents and business owners, formed in December to address concerns related to parking in downtown Brainerd. After a few months of meeting, the group brought recommendations — including discontinuing the lease on the Burlington Northern parking lot — before the city council Monday, April 5.

Community Development Director David Chanski shared the commission’s recommendations with the council, beginning with the seven categories of issues the group is hoping to address: finance, enforcement, safety and walkability, education and marketing, patron and business growth, community character and residential cohesion.

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What the commission determined, Chanski said, is the city should not be in the business of parking but should move toward managing parking.

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“They identified the city is incurring significant financial losses from providing parking, as well as accumulating long-term liabilities without a commensurate source of revenue,” he told the council. “There’s not a viable plan to close this gap, as from a supply and demand perspective, there’s an abundance of parking in the core downtown and/or not enough demand for the parking to raise rates.”

The city maintains four off-street parking lots available for residents to rent:

  • The Burlington Northern lot off Front Street behind the old Crow Wing Food Co-op,

  • The alley along the north side of Shep’s on 6th and Senor Patron’s,

  • The city hall lot on Laurel Street adjacent to Brainerd City Hall, and

  • The Maple Street lot between the Brainerd Public Library and the Brainerd Post Office.

From 2015-19, the city lost several thousand dollars by maintaining these lots. In 2019, the city’s parking lot fund saw revenues of $34,409 and expenditures of $49,552 — a deficit of more than $15,000.
RELATED: Brainerd: Council raises fees for 3 city lots, decreases fees for Maple St.
Staff did parking studies in 2016 and 2019, Chanski said, and found downtown parking spots were only at about 80% capacity, even during peak periods. A map created by IT/GIS Director Shawn Strong shows about 2,000 off-street parking spots in the downtown area — from the Mississippi River to 13th Street Southeast and from Washington Street to Oak Street. Not all of those spots, though, are in public lots.

“The parking commission identifies that having fewer parking spaces that are better managed will provide more opportunity for business enterprise and tax-based growth, while costing taxpayers, including those downtown, less money,” Chanski said. “That should be preferred to having an excess of parking that is insufficiently managed.”

To achieve that goal, the commission said the city should first establish how to measure the success of a parking strategy. A successful parking management strategy, members decided, should:

  • Increase the value of land and property within the core downtown at greater rates than commercial property values in other parts of the city and region. This can be measured through the county assessor’s records.

  • Bring more patrons to the core downtown and result in more sales transactions. This can be measured through records with the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

  • Result in more people being in the core downtown during prime hours. This can be measured by counting overall activity (sidewalk count of people) on a regular basis to discern trends.

After establishing the measurements of success, the commission gave the city three short-term recommendations to begin moving from a provider to a manager of parking.

In the first 30 days of the plan, staff should begin to identify options for supplementing leased parking within the downtown area and determine what other options people have for parking, especially downtown tenants and employees.

In the subsequent 30-60 days, staff should notify renters in the Burlington Northern lot that the city will discontinue the lease on the property in 60 days and share alternatives identified in the first step of the plan.

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In the following 90 days, staff should notify Burlington Northern the city is ending the lease. Each year the price of the lot increases by 3%, with the 2021 price sitting at just over $14,000. The city usually pays for the lease with a lump sum every year but has not yet done so for 2021. Council members agreed to ask Burlington Northern if the city can pay the lease on a monthly basis this year in anticipation of possibly ending the lease in the near future. The city is allowed to terminate the lease with 30 days notice.

RELATED: Parking meters downtown? Brainerd City Council mulls measures in workshop
“This is a first step toward better parking management, improving the character of our community and increasing the city’s overall economic vitality,” Chanski said of the 90-day plan.

Council member Gabe Johnson agreed there is an excessive amount of parking downtown but asked how the city is going to manage the private lots in the area if it discontinues some of the public offerings.

“If we’re managing parking, how do we manage the parking to get Bremer Bank or the Office Shop or MidMinnesota or US Bank or GuidePoint Pharmacy or the Thrifty White building or Charpentier and Lange to allow public parking into their private property? I wouldn’t,” he said. “I would make the city pay me, and then we’re back into the same situation as the BNSF lot. So what are the solutions to managing all this excess parking that we have no control over?”

Parking commission member Kevin Yeager said there is not one single quick answer to that question, or to anything in the parking conversations.

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“This is a conversation that has robust nuance,” Yeager said. “It is multifaceted, and the reality is that of all the seven parts, all of those have to be in balance with each other for any one of them to work.”

Johnson also asked about the idea of throwing out all the tenants who rent spots in the Burlington Northern lot. Where are they going to go?

Yeager said that’s why the first directive is for staff to identify alternate options in the first 30 days. The idea isn’t just to throw people out, he said, but to implement a strategic plan.

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Surmising there may be a lot more to this discussion than could be covered at the meeting, Council President Kelly Bevans suggested sending the issue to the council’s personnel and finance committee for further discussion and to bring recommendations to the council. The rest of the council members agreed and were directed to come up with any questions they have and to get them to Johnson — the chair of the personnel and finance committee — before the next meeting April 19 so those questions can be addressed.

In the meantime, council members Tiffany Stenglein and Mike O’Day said they would like to see staff move forward with the commission’s first recommendation of identifying alternate parking options for lease holders, but the council did not take any action.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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