Give Mike Templeman credit for trying to resuscitate a downtown venture that flopped under city ownership with public/private investment. The downtown revitalization movement is known for good intentions that failed, and he seems determined to turn the tide.
The retired coal executive and one-time congressional candidate paid $51,500 for the St. Clair Street parking garage, which the city closed in 2007 because it was underused and rapidly deteriorating. The deal calls for him to bring it up to code by Sept. 30, 2013, and keep it operating as a garage for at least 10 years. He’s started the rehabilitation work and told State Journal reporter Ryan Quinn he plans to reopen the facility within three months.
Nearly 40 years ago, City Hall and downtown merchants envisioned the St. Clair Street Mall and parking garage as key elements in restoring the vitality of a central business district that was steadily losing retail business to the suburbs. Cities battling this trend saw pedestrian malls as a way to bring a bit of suburban ambience to the center of town. Frankfort and others, after trying out the idea for decades, came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t working. So the city reopened one lane to vehicular traffic on the block of St. Clair that had been turned into a mall.
The garage was built on the site of Frankfort’s last dime store, destroyed by fire. It was intended primarily as a place for downtown workers to park, leaving on-street spaces for shoppers, but ended up less than half full most of the time. The simple truth is that lots of us go out of our way to avoid parking in one of those concrete hutches. Workers generally kept their cars on the street, playing cat and mouse with ticket writers, and shoppers were loath to use the garage even when merchants offered reimbursement of parking fees.
Templeman is starting out at a bit of a disadvantage because county government made a deal to get 35 free spaces in the refurbished garage as an incentive to construct the $30 million Franklin County Judicial Center on St. Clair Street. Judge-Executive Ted Collins prefers that the spaces be reserved for jurors, but a final decision has not been made. Remaining are 135 spaces on which the new owner hopes to make some money. His immediate plan, subject to change, is to charge monthly rates. To make the atmosphere less forbidding, he’s painting the interior and installing glare-resistant lighting.
Will motorists respond? The history of downtown parking is not encouraging. The St. Clair garage had just a 40 percent occupancy rate and the newer Sullivan Square garage on West Main Street is running about 60-70 percent, according to interim City Manager Walter Wilhoite, who also serves as police chief and plans to enforce on-street parking regulations more stringently once the St. Clair garage reopens.
The crying need downtown isn’t so much for parking as for more business attractions that might increase the demand. In that respect, a parking shortage would be welcome. Templeman hopes to boost patronage with commercial space on the ground floor of the garage. Among previous occupants of that area were a Subway shop and an office supply store, appropriate for a district where office workers predominate, but hardly enthralling to the general public.
Downtown can’t compete with big retailers on the edge of town. But if it can stimulate more commercial growth that serves close-in residents, commuters, tourists and the occasional suburbanite, the parking garage might have a shot at success, after all.