The two candidates for Springfield mayor have different visions for downtown parking; one wants to make it free and the other is taking a wait-and-see approach, hoping further economic development will bring more people downtown.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, parking downtown has been free. But enforcement personnel continue to patrol the area and ticket vehicles that overstay the allotted time in a particular space.
"Frankly, I don't think we have enough activity downtown to pay for the meters, which is why I wouldn't have them," said City Treasurer Misty Buscher, who is running for mayor. "They're expensive. ... There are signs for two-hour parking, three-hour parking, whatever. I would keep the parking zones. And I would still have our parking enforcement officers downtown who have a device that allows them to see how long the car's been there."
Mayor Jim Langfelder, who is seeking reelection, said the philosophy behind the city's parking policy is not about generating money but ensuring there are enough spaces for visitors coming to the downtown.
He said he anticipates parking meters will remain free at least until this spring.
Since the city has quit having people feed parking meters, some folks who work full time in the business district have stopped renting spaces from private lots and begun parking on the streets, he said. This is a practice the municipality wants to curb because it deters others from shopping in the downtown area.
Douglas Mayol, owner of the downtown card and gift store The Cardologist, said the mayor's concerns are valid.
"You can't just have people who work downtown camping out and taking all the parking spaces," he said. But Mayol added that the free parking has not discernibly changed the community's attitude towards the downtown.
"Many people don't know you don't have to plug the meters anymore. I'm constantly seeing people feeding the meters. I try to stop them, but usually I'm too late. The free parking is a good thing, but it's a small thing," he said. "I guess I'm OK with eliminating the meters as long as we have some way of keeping people from taking a parking space all day."
Langfelder supports two projects that would create more permanent housing in the downtown. One proposal calls for the conversion of a portion of the Wyndham City Centre hotel into apartments. But, so far, the city council has not approved rezoning out of fear that a partial conversion would strip the capital city of needed hotel space.
The second project, the Lofts on Madison, would be a 136-unit apartment complex at East Madison Street and North Fifth Street. The project would bring 350 to 400 more permanent residents downtown.
If these projects come to fruition, more pressure will be placed on the downtown parking system, not only because more people will be living downtown, but because their presence is likely to spur the creation of more retailers to serve their needs, Langfelder said.
Before the pandemic, the city was planning a pilot program that would replace some of the city's parking meters with newer meters capable of accepting credit cards. But that project is on hold. The electronic chips necessary for manufacturing the meters became unavailable during the global pandemic and parking needs changed downtown as more state workers worked from home.
"I think we will address it as the need arises; that's when the council seems to have the appetite to spend the funds to move in that direction," Langfelder said.
Linda Renehan, owner of the downtown business Springfield Vintage, said the area has an excess of parking but it's not always available to those shopping.
"Everybody loves free parking meters. But I'm curious how that affects the owners of parking lots. You drive around the downtown and see lots half full or three-quarters full, but then customers can't find a parking space because people who live and work downtown are parking on the street because its free."
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at email@example.com.