The years-long debate continues. Is there a parking problem in downtown Brainerd?

The answer isn’t quite straightforward, though. From the perspective of downtown business owners and landlords, there is a parking problem for tenants and employees, but there is not a problem for customers. That’s what a handful of community members told the city’s parking commission during a town hall meeting Tuesday, June 9.

“Really, most everything is working pretty well. I’m not sure that you guys need to reinvent the wheel,” Becky Laporte, of Pueringer Investments, told the commission. “We could use more parking for our residential tenants and our commercial business owners.”

Downtown Brainerd June 9, 2021. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Downtown Brainerd June 9, 2021. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

The parking commission, composed of residents and business owners, formed in December to address concerns related to parking downtown. Group members have since identified seven categories they would like to address: finance, enforcement, safety and walkability, education and marketing, patron and business growth, community character and residential cohesion.

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Among the first of the commission’s recommendations to the city council was to discontinue leasing the Burlington Northern parking lot of Front Street, as they said the city should not be in the business of parking.

The council discussed the idea but ultimately continued paying the lease through March 2022 — as the lease agreement states the whole year must be paid for up front — and directed the parking commission to continue discussing the issue.

There are 59 spots in the Burlington Northern lot, all of which are full right now. The revenue from the lot, however, falls about $2,000 short from covering the cost of the lease, not to mention maintenance costs and staff time.

But the business owners in attendance Tuesday said getting rid of that lot would be detrimental.

“We don’t want to see that parking lot go away,” said Ed Mattson, owner of the Last Turn Saloon and downtown apartments. “That would be a major problem for us as property owners.”

Mattson said he has 18 tenants and rents 10 spots in the Burlington Northern Lot for them. He directs his tenants to other city-owned parking if they need it.

Dave Pueringer, of Pueringer Investments, has been a downtown property owner for 40 years and said taking away parking would cut into some of the recent success the downtown area has seen.

He said the city could increase the cost of spots in the Burlington Northern Lot by $5 a month to earn more money to cover the deficit without likely losing renters, as there is already a waiting list for the lot. Other business owners agreed that a $5 a month increase would likely be OK for those who rent the spots.

“Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” Pueringer said of the Burlington Northern Lot.

But Pueringer did have a suggestion to help with any parking problems that might exist downtown — dual parking. The city could designate some spots for day/night parking, meaning one person rents them during the day and one person during the night for those who only need parking for part of the day. That could also potentially increase parking revenue, Pueringer said.

The Burlington Northern parking lot, which the city of Brainerd leases off Front Street, has 59 spots for residents to rent. There is currently a waiting list for the lot. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
The Burlington Northern parking lot, which the city of Brainerd leases off Front Street, has 59 spots for residents to rent. There is currently a waiting list for the lot. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Education and marketing

Those in attendance also said education is a big piece, letting business owners know they shouldn’t be taking up customer spots by parking in front of their business all day.

Mayor Dave Badeaux mentioned education and marketing as important pieces as well. So many customers feel they need to park right in front of the store or restaurant they’re going to, he said, and he wants to figure out a way to get people used to walking a block or two to their destination.

Commission member Brenda Billman-Arndt, owner of Purple Fern Bath Company downtown, echoed that sentiment, saying many people perceive parking as an issue for downtown shoppers, when in reality she sees many empty spaces every day.

The business of parking

Parking commission member Chuck Marohn said he is skeptical of the city’s ability to be a good manager of parking and suggested they get out of the parking business altogether.

“If you look at our market for parking today, one of the reasons why we can’t really charge much more than we do is because there’s too much supply and not enough demand,” Marohn said. “... I would like to see the private marketplace in the city provide the parking where it needs to be provided, and I would like to see the city get out of the parking business because I don’t think we do it well.”

Mattson, however, disagreed completely. While he said he respected Marohn’s stance, privatizing parking in the city would be a mistake.

“Anybody who’s in business or in downtown can easily see that’s a horrible mistake,” Mattson said.

And to further prove the need for parking lots like the Burlington Northern lot, Mattson said there are about 200 apartments downtown, and those tenants need off-street parking spots on Wednesday nights in the summer when the street is swept and during the winter when streets are being plowed.

Pueringer said while the city might not be the best manager of parking, it is the preferred manager.

Commission Chair Kevin Yeager thanked everyone who attended the meeting and said he felt like he learned a lot from the downtown business owners and landlords, and commission members will use that information as they go forward.

“Everyone in this room wants the right decisions to be made, not just for today, but for the future going forward, and we feel like we need you as contributors to that conversation,” Yeager said.

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