Stillwater officials explore charging for downtown parking – Twin Cities
Here’s the thing about parking in downtown Stillwater: It doesn’t cost a cent to park in the prime spots along Main Street, but you have to pay for the municipal parking ramp a couple of blocks away.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Mayor Ted Kozlowski.
City officials are exploring a change to the city’s downtown parking plan, which could include the addition of paid parking spaces — to be paid in 15-minute increments — in high-traffic areas.
“We’re trying to add some value to downtown in terms of public safety, imaging and cleanliness, as well as expansion,” said Community Development Director Tim Gladhill. “We feel that we have provided an abundance of free parking that relies on property taxes to maintain, and we expect that many of the visitors downtown won’t be overly surprised if we charge for more areas. Many have come to expect that.”
Under one scenario, all parking spaces east of Main Street, as well as on-street parking on Main Street, would be paid, Gladhill said.
The city’s downtown parking commission has been studying the issue over the past couple of years and will present its findings to the Stillwater City Council on Dec. 6.
According to the commission, adding paid parking spaces could help “address the increasing gap of deferred maintenance” and other infrastructure needs. It also could address peak-demand periods, improve compliance with time-limited parking zones and encourage more turnover and availability in prime parking spaces.
Of the 2,000 parking spaces in downtown Stillwater, about 75 percent are currently free, said Stillwater City Council member David Junker, the council’s liaison to the downtown parking commission. Under the scenario where parking spaces east of and on Main Street would be paid, there still would be roughly 60 percent free parking, he said.
The city-owned parking lots west of Main Street — the two lots by Teddy Bear Park and three lots by the Stillwater Veterans Memorial — would continue to be free. “An important component to this is that there is still going to be a large portion of downtown Stillwater that will offer free parking,” Junker said.
Stillwater has become a year-round destination, and Junker said the city’s parking rates should reflect that. The city-owned paid parking lots near the St. Croix River — Lots 1 and 2 — currently are free from Nov. 1 through May 1.
“Through our events and our wonderful shops and boutiques and restaurants, we just feel that we are more of a year-round city,” he said. “I’m really in the camp of converting our city to year-round, and that includes charging for parking year-round as well.”
City officials are exploring using the PassportParking app, a mobile-phone-payment option that is available for free on the Android and Apple iOS operating systems and allows users to enter their space number and pay for parking with a credit or debit card. The city could raise anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million per year, depending on what scenario might be approved, according to Gladhill.
“Stillwater is busy now Monday through Sunday, and we are very fortunate for that,” Junker said. “We want to provide all the best amenities that we can — not only for the residents who are paying for that through property taxes, but also for the businesses and the people who come here to visit.”
‘A little Nashville’
Sara Jespersen is the owner of the Lumberjack and Mad Capper in downtown Stillwater. She also owns a short-term rental unit in downtown Stillwater. Parking is a challenge, she said.
“I feel like we’ve become a little Nashville, and that’s a good vibe,” she said. “But as our town grows, and we become the town we want to be all year long and have robust events and have successful businesses, we continue to have parking issues and no financial way to remedy that. I think we could use some additional parking ramps, but that all takes funding.”
Hudson, Wis., charges for parking downtown, so it wouldn’t be a stretch for Stillwater, she said.
“Hudson feels like they are gapping us, like they’re taking the lead right now,” she said. “We want to be first class.”
Any change to downtown parking should include a plan for employee parking, said Joe Ehlenz, co-owner of Lolo, Lolito and Stillwater Proper. “What are they going to do for all the people who work downtown? That needs to be decided before they do anything,” he said. “We would need to know details going into this.”
Ehlenz and his partners, Brad Nordeen and Mark Miller, plan to move Lolito into the former Marx restaurant space on Main Street by Jan. 7; the current Lolito location will become a new restaurant — details to come — the first week of February, he said.
Ehlenz said his preference would be for the city to continue with free parking, but if that’s not possible, the first 15 minutes of parking should be free to allow for pick-up and drop-off of items.
“I don’t want it to be $1 an hour,” he said. “It needs to be cheap.”
Robin Anthony, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, said she didn’t think the addition of paid parking spaces downtown would shock visitors.
“People expect to pay for parking now, and we’ve been offering a good deal for parking for a really long time,” she said. “It’s very busy down here now, and it has been the last couple of years. I think to be able to continue to make improvements for the downtown area, we need to start bringing in revenue any way we can, and there’s a lot that we can do for the downtown district. There are a lot of improvement opportunities, but we need revenue coming in.”
Among the improvements Anthony would like to see: sidewalk maintenance, additional holiday lights and better street lights.
Like Ehlenz, Anthony said that any change to parking must include a plan for employees who work downtown. “What could that look like?” she said. “Could there be a place for workers to park up on the hill a block or two? Because right now, a lot of them will park anywhere they can find a spot and then that spot is taken all day.”
Charging for parking in downtown Hudson is a way to ensure the parking spots regularly turn over, said Hudson City Administrator Aaron Reeves. “It’s not a revenue-generating source for us,” he said. “Our goal, honestly, is to break even with it and be able to pay for replacement parts and equipment. For the most part, it’s just that we want to turn over the parking, so we have the opportunity for more people to come downtown.”
In 2021, Hudson brought in $125,000 in parking revenue and made $118,000 in parking-ticket revenue, he said. First-time offenders are given a free pass. “Our goal isn’t to penalize anyone,” he said. “It’s to stop people from parking in the same spot all day.”
Stillwater had meters before
Stillwater had 250 parking meters downtown from 1947 to 1990, said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.
“The first meters only took pennies and nickels, a penny for one hour, a nickel for more,” Peterson said. “After the first week in service, the parking meters collected $255.68. If you over-parked at a meter, the fine was $1.”
The first car owner to receive a ticket was Willard Everett of Minneapolis “when he over-parked for a second time after being forgiven the first violation,” according to an article published in the Stillwater Post Messenger on Aug. 28, 1947.
According to Peterson, all of the parking meters were removed from the streets of Stillwater in January 1990. The old parking meters were sold for $10 each at the city garage, he said.