Would conference center plan address downtown parking?

'People don't like walking up the hill'

One conference center proposal, from Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, includes construction of a city-owned and operated parking garage at the West McCarty Street site. But as the city moves forward with negotiations, some have questioned whether the location is right for a new parking garage.

Jefferson City officials currently are in ongoing negotiations with two developers for the proposed conference center: Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, which would construct the facility next to Capitol Plaza on West McCarty Street, and Farmer Development Co., which would construct the facility at their Capital Mall location.

The Ehrhardt proposal includes construction of a city-built and operated parking garage at an estimated cost of about $7 million, with another $180,000 per year to operate.

The city’s parking fund has about $3.5 million reserved for construction of a new garage.

But while the city agrees a new garage is needed, the location has been questioned. Public Works Director Matt Morasch and interim City Administrator Drew Hilpert both have said the West McCarty Street location is not seen as a high demand area and is too far away from the downtown to be in demand for parking.

Operations Division Director Britt Smith said the ideal location for a new city parking garage would have about 400 or 500 spaces with vehicles able to enter and exit from West McCarty Street, but also have pedestrian access to High Street, without disrupting the existing historic buildings.

“People don’t like walking up the hill,” Smith said. “The driver is the Capitol.”

Smith said the Hawthorne Bank lot, between West McCarty and West High streets, and the Central Bank lot, off West High Street across from the Capitol building, both would be ideal locations for a new garage.

But Stephanie Bell, president of Downtown Jefferson City, said the West McCarty Street site is in no way too far and people frequently can be seen walking up the hill to get to the Capitol.

“They do walk — they do it every day,” Bell said.

In a letter endorsing the Ehrhardts’ proposal, the downtown group wrote that if it comes down to a choice between the site on West McCarty and Broadway or a new garage on West McCarty and Madison, the association backs the Ehrhardts’ chosen site, on West McCarty and Broadway.

“We would support having that garage in near proximity to the conference center,” the letter states. “It is walkable and, according to both city investigation of downtown parking trends and anecdotal information gathered by downtown residents and businesses, the placement in that site would simply shift some of the current parking tenants.”

Hilpert said the city has spoken about alternate options for a garage with the Ehrhardts as negotiations move forward, but nothing has been decided.

“That’s still something we’re talking about,” Hilpert said.

When asked about any advantages to building a garage on the West McCarty Street site, Hilpert said it could, in theory, serve the Truman Building, and Smith said the lots in the area are full or nearly full every day.

“There is certainly a demand there,” Smith said. “Is there a demand there for another 500 spaces? Well, I don’t think so, but certainly there’s probably more demand.”

Another potential issue for building a new garage is the possibility of increasing rates throughout the area. Previously, Morasch said building the parking garage would result in increasing the existing parking fees and fines by 30 percent to 70 percent to keep the parking fund healthy.

Smith said in general, costs to provide parking downtown increase and, as a result, the rates, fines and fees increase. Smith said that wherever a parking garage is built, the city would have to look at what additional revenue it would create, as well as the additional costs.

Hilpert noted that for the life of a bond, “there’s no way a garage pays for itself.” It’s supported by the fines and fees from other parking areas.

“The parking system funds itself,” Smith said. “It’s just a math game. We figure out what it costs, we figure out what it costs to run it.”

Hilpert said any increases would be a policy decision made by city leadership.

Hilpert said negotiations are not quite far enough along to be able to say whether the proposed garage would require giving some spaces to the state or providing free parking to conference or hotel guests.

“All that stuff is still in discussion,” Hilpert said.

Smith said the city has considered building more than one smaller garage throughout the area, but they have to consider the need of each area.

Smith said the legislative session obviously is the peak season for parking in the downtown area, when most, if not all, city lots are full every day. The issues the city has with providing enough parking today, he said, was an unimaginable problem just 10 or 15 years ago.

Bell agreed, noting the lack of parking is a good problem to have, though personally, she said the parking is great for a downtown area, especially when compared to urban areas.

“We’ve got growing pains,” Bell said. “If people could park wherever they wanted any time they wanted in downtown, then we would have a more serious problem, because what that would mean is that downtown was a ghost town.”

The city has 1,574 spaces in reserved parking areas downtown, including the existing city garage on Madison Street and Capitol Avenue, as well as 883 metered spots, including all free parking areas, in the downtown area.

Hilpert and Smith said the issue now is much like an algebra problem, where the city is trying to solve for multiple variables that equal a parking garage and, as negotiations move forward, those variables slowly will be solved.

“It does just come down to math, but it’s math with a bunch of variables,” Smith said. “We can make some guesses, but until everybody says, ‘Yeah, that sounds reasonable,’ you’ve just got to keep refining your model.”

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