Parking fears are overblown

People visit places for their attractions, not for their parking.”

— Jeff Siegler, Revitalize or Die website 

One of the most common complaints about downtown Winchester — or pretty much downtown anywhere — is that there’s no place to park. 

I think what these folks mean is, “there’s no place to park that’s within ten steps of the front door of the establishment I want to visit.” 

Face it — suburban sprawl has ruined us. We expect to be greeted by a sea of open asphalt when we shop. And most of us won’t even walk between shops within a big shopping center. We go back to our car and drive a few hundred feet, then get out and continue our shopping.

Last year I wrote about an idea to improve the downtown shopping and dining experience in Winchester. The idea was a mobile “parklet,” which could provide sidewalk seating for any establishment. The parklet would sit on the street in front of a business and take up a meager two parking spots.

Judging by a few of the comments I received, you’d have thought I had suggested ripping out the statue of Daniel Boone in College Park and melting it down to make costume jewelry. 

Several people thought the parklet idea was terrible because it would occupy a couple of prime street parking spots. 

So we’re spoiled. But we are not beyond redemption. The real problem may not be laziness on the part of shoppers at all. 

The truth is that it’s never a lack of parking that kills downtown business districts. We’ve talked about some of the causes of downtown decline before — aging buildings, neglect, lack of code enforcement, lack of imagination, inconsistent store hours, and more. 

If people are motivated to shop downtown, they will shop downtown, whether they have to walk half a block or three blocks to get to the store.

So what motivates these shoppers? 

Have you ever been to Gatlinburg, Tennessee? We go there often. People will drive around forever it seems, finding a place to park. If they can’t locate a spot on the street, they will pay to park in a lot a block or two off the main drag.

Then they will get out of their car and walk for hours as they mill about town browsing the shops, sampling food and beverages, checking out tacky museums, and spending a lot of money. 

Why are towns like Gatlinburg full of shoppers roaming about on foot? 

You might answer that the main reason is its proximity to a National Park, and you would not be wrong. But you might be surprised to learn that the majority of those people do not travel to the area to see the park — they come to shop, to be entertained, and to experience the town.

They come because the stores are attractive and offer a variety of products, tastes, and experiences. They come for the vibe.

Winchester is not Gatlinburg, and I don’t think any of us wish it were so. But the point is clear: if we have enough high-quality, distinctive, and interesting places to shop, eat, and have engaging experiences, parking is not a problem. 

We are making strides. In the 4½ years I have lived here, I’ve seen new shops, arts and crafts attractions, restaurants, a brewery, and a distillery added to the inventory of downtown attractions. These are the kinds of exciting developments that have the potential to make our town a regional draw for people looking for a fun experience. 

People will always find a place to park. 

To paraphrase a famous movie line, “If you build it, they will come — and find a place to park.” 

This article appeared in The Winchester Sun on Thursday, January 9, 2020.

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