Parking crunch drives decisions on downtown's future

Town & Country: here today... - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Town & Country: here today...
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Town & Country, other businesses watch Winslow Tomorrow debate with keen interest. This is the final part of a series on the Winslow Tomorrow planning initiative.

Anchors aweigh.

To sailors, the phrase marks the start of a new voyage. To city planners, it heralds the worst case scenario – the loss of an anchor business around which a downtown, as a complex and interdependent economic system, is based.

If Winslow were a fleet of ships, captained by a handful of long-time property owners, what would happen if one of its most prominent vessels left for more hospitable waters?

“It would take a lot of air out of the downtown business community,” said Bainbridge Chamber of Commerce Director Kevin Dwyer, speculating about the possibility of Town & Country leaving downtown Winslow for a location that might better suits its needs. The company owns five acres on High School Road, east of the highway, where Ace Hardware now sits.

No such voyage is imminent, according to T&C company president Larry Nakata. In fact, he stresses a strong desire to drop permanent anchor in Winslow.

But as islanders debate the merits of the Winslow Tomorrow planning effort, downtown businesspeople like Nakata are quietly plotting their own courses, all the while watching the political tides for hints of things to come.

“We would love to stay downtown another 50 years,” said Nakata, whose store is celebrating its golden anniversary this year. “It’s our home. But we also acknowledge that as the island grows, we can no longer continue to be the place for people to park downtown. We have to be able to provide parking for our customers.”

As it stands now, T&C and the Virginia Mason Winslow Clinic, its neighbor across Winslow Way, hold about half of the downtown’s parking spaces.

Both Nakata and Tom Haggar, who owns the clinic property, helped initiate planning efforts that predate, and actually led to, Winslow Tomorrow in 2004.

Both acknowledge that some commuters take advantage of their parking. And both are seriously eyeing expansions to their facilities, which are cited by many people as pillars of the downtown.

But doing so, they say, would first require a solution to a parking dilemma that for now has them carrying a hefty share of the load.

“One of the city’s consultants said it best,” Nakata said. “It’s like trying to put 50 pounds worth of stuff into a 10 pound bag.”

As discussion about Winslow Tomorrow intensifies, concerns among the community about building height and bulk, open space, affordable housing and the local water supply, just to name a few, have distended that bag to a near breaking point.

Though the business community shares a similar focus, it is parking, more than anything else, that has consumed the bulk of their discussion.

Things are set to change in November, when already-approved parking changes – which will reduce the required parking from four spaces per 1,000 square feet to two spaces per 1,000 square feet for commercial and retail outfits – will take effect.

The city’s goal, shared by Nakata, Haggar and several other Winslow businesses, is to shift surface parking to a new garage downtown, plans for which are still taking shape.

Parking place

Property owners and the city in March entered a partnership to asses the feasibility of the proposed structure, a study to which the city is contributing $127,500.

Under study are the cost, size and aesthetics of the garage, as well as possible access to it. Results will be presented this fall.

Along with creating more parking for customers – the new requirements say the downtown core must accommodate 725 to 937 spaces by 2025 – planners say the garage would improve a severely cramped employee parking situation.

For $20, the Chamber of Commerce now issues six-month parking permits to downtown employees that allow them access to about 100 surface spaces in Winslow. Depending on the time of day, Dwyer said, available spaces can be scarce.

“It’s first come, first serve,” he said. “It’s not a perfect situation, but we’re doing what we can for now.”

Directly linked to the parking discussion is the future of transit. Many believe a jitney would help alleviate some of the parking stress downtown. Others think not enough is being done to encourage alternative modes of transportation.

Nakata too wants to see a shift away from cars, but said expecting the change to occur overnight isn’t realistic.

“This is still a rural area,” Nakata said. “As much as we all love the idea that someday we won’t be as dependent on the automobile, the current reality is that we do need the automobile.”

That reality, said Nakata and Haggar, is clearly visible in their parking lots, which often receive portions of the downtown’s overflow of cars.

Haggar said the entire Winslow Tomorrow plan, including the all-important parking situation, has been unfairly deconstructed by critics.

He said the early stages of the process, which included a 125-member community congress, elicited mountains of public input. Since then, he said, the project has experienced some atrophy, but its foundation – the consensus reached by the public – remains sound.

“As a community, we’re really all in agreement over what we’re trying to achieve,” Haggar said. “We’re just not always sure how to achieve it. Now things are starting to move forward, and the people who didn’t go through the process are understandably nervous.

“But at some point we have to let the elected officials sift through all of the material and make some decisions. We have to trust in the people who were trained to make our vision a reality.”

Haggar balked at the idea of putting Winslow Tomorrow to a vote, as some have suggested.

“It’s not an item you put a price tag on,” Haggar said. “It’s a compilation of ideas and projects designed to make the downtown more viable.”

One who left

Ken Schuricht, owner of Winslow Paint Company and former owner of Winslow Hardware on Winslow Way, said he too would like to see Winslow Tomorrow move forward.

Facing a number of problems, not the least of which was parking, Schurict in 2005 decided to close the hardware store and consolidate his business at his paint store on Hildebrand Lane, which opened four years earlier.

The hardware store on Winslow Way – its storefront is now the site of Port Madison Home – had been an anchor in downtown Winslow since 1948.

Before making the move, Schurict said he tried all kinds of things, including expanding in size, to make his business work where it was.

“We suffered a little from people not being able to get to us,” he said. “They would drive around the block once. If they really liked us they’d drive around the block twice. But they wouldn’t drive around a third time. They’d go up the road to Ace (Hardware, on High School Road).”

It is because of that migration of customers that many businesses are making similar moves to the north, according to Dave Nelson, who specializes in commercial real estate for Windermere.

Nelson said high rents along Winslow Way, along with limited parking and access, are causing some businesses to look toward the growing retail and commercial sector near High School Road.

“People go to the grocery store or the bank,” he said. “And then once they’re there, if they decide to go to the hobby shop or another store their decision is a little easier because there’s an abundance of parking.”

That trend, Dwyer said, of making multiple stops after the initial trip, is what anchors like T&C do for the downtown.

The shuffle

Still, not all movement among merchants is being directed out of Winslow.

Esther’s Fabric, on the island since 1959 and on Winslow Way for the past 15 years, is getting ready to move into a bigger space just up the street, next to the Back of Beyond kayak shop, which recently migrated from a small basement space to larger quarters upstairs in the same building.

“There are a lot of things that need to be done,” said Esther’s owner Jennifer Rhoads. “The infrastructure wasn’t designed to last as long as it has. Now it’s failing.”

City planners say a solution is nigh, since the City Council’s recent approval of nearly $1 million in funding for early work on infrastructure changes to the main street.

Rhoads, who said she’s a strong backer of Winslow Tomorrow, chose to relocate in part because she wanted more space.

But she also wanted a longer term lease, something Nakata, her current landlord, couldn’t guarantee because of the uncertainty of his own plans for Town & Country.

Some downtown shop-owners weren’t so optimistic about Winslow Tomorrow. Rhoads soon-to-be neighbor Udo Wald, who owns Back of Beyond, said he’s delighted that Esther’s is moving in next door. He’s less enthused about what he sees as a stagnated planning effort.

“It started out as a good idea,” he said. “But it got off track. They need to decide what they want the downtown to be. It should have the feel of a neighborhood, not a city.”

Wald said he’s discouraged by the lack of tangible change, especially the absence of a restroom at Waterfront Park, something that was promised long ago but has yet to come to fruition.

He also fears that building height increases will rob the downtown of its current character.

“This should be a good, close-knit community of businesses that serve the community,” he said.

Like Esther’s and Back of Beyond, the Traveller is ready to expand. Owner Barbara Tolliver said her shop will soon move a few doors down to a space that’s twice as big the one she’s in now. She recognizes the limitations facing T&C and the clinic, as well as other downtown business owners, but believes property owners are acting in good faith.

“They could have gone off on their own and done something,” she said. “But the haven’t. They’ve tried to keep everyone involved. They’re savvy financially, but that’s not all they’re about.”

Financially, Schurict said leaving downtown was the best thing for him, though he admits he misses the hardware business.

“We did the numbers and had a heck of a battle with our conscience,” he said. “We asked, ‘who do we owe: the hardware store, ourselves, the community, neither or both?”

Meanwhile, Nakata and T&C both anchor downtown and deliberate over their future there. Nakata, Haggar and a group of businessowners are working with the city to prepare for the coming infrastructure changes along Winslow Way. After that, Nakata said, the future of T&C should become clearer.

“We would love to expand,” he said. “We’ve certainly been investigating our options, but we’re also wanting to see how the community wants to address this issue.

“The community has set the bar pretty high with Winslow Tomorrow. Now decisions have to be made and not everyone is going to be totally pleased. The great thing is a lot of people care. If no one cared we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

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