Efforts to continue the revitalization of downtown Brainerd may be at a crossroads-a tricky balancing act, as members of the Brainerd City Council stated, to meet the city's fiscal needs while also fostering an environment conducive for business.

Parking-whether that's on-street or off-street, private or city-owned, leased or free-looks to factor significantly in the discussion. Along with representatives of local economic development organizations, including Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority and initiatives like River to Rail, council members convened Monday, June 10, to tackle a number of issues interrelated to spurring commercial growth downtown.

Most prominently, conversation revolved around how to address parking congestion and how to meet a shortfall in parking lease revenue without hurting local businesses or driving potential customers away from downtown.

But, as it was iterated by members at multiple points, perception trumps reality-namely, if it's a common perception that downtown is difficult to park in, then potential customers may shy away and hurt local businesses anyway, whether there's available spots or not.

No easy task, as Mayor Ed Menk noted, based on 45 years as a proprietor of E. L. Menk Jewelers in downtown Brainerd. Menk leases five parking spots himself and described the situation as a balancing act between paying the bills and meeting the expectations of drivers.

"This isn't just an easy solution," Menk told assembled council members, city staff and consulting agencies. "If you don't have the parking available for customers, for tenants and for workers-you don't have a downtown. You can kiss it goodbye."

While the majority of council members-including Sue Hilgart, Dave Badeaux, Jan Lambert and Kelly Bevans-expressed a desire to explore parking meters, the mayor balked at the notion of installing them. Menk said he was open to haggling over zoning, special tax assessments, or lease rates and how to enforce them. But he noted downtown Brainerd used to have parking meters, before the Westgate Mall opened in the early '80s and roughly 40% of downtown businesses died out seemingly overnight.

"Are you trying to run me out of business?" Menk said. "You install parking meters? It's going to be tough. It's going to be tough on businesses and, frankly, I don't think downtown is that healthy right now."

When push comes to shove, Menk said, if customers are choosing between venues with similar offerings, they'll opt for the place with free parking every time.

In recent years, a number of new businesses and restaurants have located in downtown Brainerd and property owners have put money into renovating and restoring existing buildings. Among these revitalization efforts is the River to Rail project, which seeks to connect the riverfront to the Northern Pacific Center, making the area a destination for residents and tourists.

Badeaux and Hilgart said Menk may be overestimating fickleness on the part of consumers. While there needs to be a shift in cultural expectations for Brainerd commuters, both pointed to positive experiences in other cities-St. Cloud for Hilgart; the Twin Cities metro for Badeaux-with both noting they were fine with parking meters and parking permits, finding them convenient and fair.

"We are so far behind the times in terms of the reality of what parking costs," Hilgart said. "It's ridiculous."

"I may be outside the norm," Badeaux said, "but I didn't find it jarring to pay to park my vehicle. I'm used to paying for parking."

Council President Gabe Johnson noted, if the city did pursue metered lots, that digitized kiosks for multiple parking spots, not traditional single meters requiring coins, would be preferable.

City Engineer Paul Sandy reminded council members the city of Brainerd has a gap-roughly $11,000, though it could be a little lower-before the budget breaks even in terms of revenue and upkeep costs for its parking areas downtown.

After extended discussion, City Administrator Cassandra Torstenson suggested a hybrid system designed to meet revenue needs by the city and facilitate a positive, productive experience for customers.

By implementing a trifecta of parking standards, she said, the city could meet parking congestion and revenue needs by:

  • Designating some lots to be leased for tenants to use on a constant basis, to address housing and related workforce needs for the city;
  • Installing parking meters for other lots, to increase revenue and enforcement in a way that's convenient for both citizen and city; and
  • Establishing "free," or tax-funded parking spots-particularly on-street parking-with tighter time restrictions to spur faster parking turnover, less congestion and a more expedient shopping and dining experience for consumers downtown.

Adjourning the meeting, Johnson directed staff to explore a potential metered lot and costs to install parking meter kiosks. He also directed staff to determine an upkeep/revenue balance for lease rates so the city could address its $11,000 shortfall.