EDITORIAL: Parking not the main issue

By Observer staff August 16, 2013 01:45 pm

This week’s détente between La Grande Main Street and the downtown businesses it represents was a positive step forward. Any time opposing sides sit down and discuss the issues — rather than sling mud back and forth — it’s a good thing.

Which is why we had high hopes for Tuesday’s meeting. 

The meeting — which was billed as a public forum to discuss the future of La Grande Main Street — was held at the business of one Main Street’s most vocal detractors and the forum almost drew a full house. 

Yet, many business owners and citizens said during the meeting that parking is the most pressing issue, and one that has gone unaddressed by the city for decades. So, business owners and citizens signed a makeshift petition for angled parking on Adams Avenue, identifying it as one sure way to improve the downtown area. But we don’t think having more empty parking places is the answer.

We understand the need for a city’s downtown to have plenty of parking when residents venture downtown for a bite to eat or to grab that last minute item. But we aren’t convinced — contrary to what many at Tuesday’s meeting believe — that that’s the most pressing issue facing La Grande’s downtown.

We can hear the supporters now, “You won’t draw anyone downtown, if there is nowhere to park.” And we agree, to a point. However, you definitely won’t draw anyone downtown if there aren’t reasons to go downtown.

Despite some excellent restaurants and retail stores, it’s no secret that downtown La Grande has largely become a service-based downtown. Storefronts that used to offer retail goods have become insurance and real estate offices, which is good for employment and restaurants, but doesn’t offer much incentive for residents to linger downtown. 

As big box and Internet shopping increased, independent retailers have declined. According to the U.S. Business Census, non-employer (mom and pop) retail establishments in Union County have declined from 211 in 2002 to 178 in 2011.

This was certainly touched on at Tuesday night’s meeting. There seems to be a consensus that downtown is lacking some important retail needs, like a men’s clothing store and a shoe store. But on the other side of that coin is an issue raised by John Lackey — shopping local must be a community priority in order for downtown retail shops to thrive. “Shop local” has evolved into one of those buzz words that ooze from the wide-sweeping proclamations of elected officials and concerned residents but it is a concept easier to visualize than to execute.

Successful business begets more successful business. To develop downtown, we need a core of business mentors to encourage and recruit new businesses and to help the ones that are located downtown now to manage, market and merchandise in a way that will allow them to thrive. 

Changing the parking situation downtown may be a good idea, but it’s not one that gets at the heart of what Main Street is trying to do. To truly develop downtown, let’s focus on increasing foot traffic, ringing registers and attracting more businesses, not distracting ourselves by taking action on something that may or may not be a problem in the first place. Let’s talk about creating more business. Then we can talk about how to park it.