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EGF's parking shortage: A good problem to have

As problems go, a city can have worse ones than a parking shortage in its downtown. That's especially true in East Grand Forks, where the parking problem a few years ago was the reverse -- too many parking spots left empty as the downtown withere...

River Cinema parking lot
Downtown East Grand Forks has only about 800 parking spots, about half of them in these two lots north of River Cinema 12. "The problem is a blessing in a way because it shows the downtown resurgence," said Tom Behm, manager of Whitey?s Cafe. Herald photo by John Stennes.

As problems go, a city can have worse ones than a parking shortage in its downtown.

That's especially true in East Grand Forks, where the parking problem a few years ago was the reverse -- too many parking spots left empty as the downtown withered.

But it's a problem, nonetheless. "Last Saturday night, the Sorlie Bridge was closed and the lots still were full," City Council President Dick Grassel said last week.

And it figures to get more crowded, as River Cinema 12 in June will be adding three screens and 500 seats to its current 1,300. River Cinema's meteoric growth -- unanticipated by everyone except owner Bob Moore -- is the big reason.

Adding to the one-stop, night-on-the-town atmosphere are six restaurants within a block. The movie complex and restaurants feed off each other. Cabela's also is a big attraction, although not in the late evenings when the biggest parking problems exist.

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Moore said River Cinema has 800 to 1,000 customers for weekend movies that start at midnight. Downtown has about 800 parking spots, about half of them in the two parking lots north of River Cinema.

"The parking problem is a blessing in a way because it shows the downtown resurgence," said Tim Behm, manager of Whitey's Cafe.

Business owners and city officials will meet Wednesday morning to discuss options.

The simplest, cheapest and most repeated solution is for merchants to require their employees to park away from the prime spots close to the businesses. On busy evenings, the entertainment venues combine for about 150 employees.

"Parking will always be an issue here, but it only makes sense to help it by not having our own staffs taking up the best spots," said Dave Homstad, owner of the Blue Moose.

Homstad said the parking situation may cost him a few customers, but he has no complaints because he has waiting lines on weekend nights and almost every night in the summer.

Moore said he probably has lost some customers, too. "The last thing business owners want to see is people circling, not being able to find a parking spot and then going back home," he said.

Behm said he may add valet parking to Whitey's next winter. His customers are older, and more burdened by having to walk longer distances.

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Behm said a solution might be a parking ramp of one or two levels behind the movie theater. But Jim Richter, the city's economic development director, said costs of construction and management make a ramp unlikely.

Another possibility is a city-owned lot on the southeastern corner of DeMers Avenue and Fourth Street. The 14,000 square-foot, graveled lot would require paving.

"The question is who pays for it and who maintains it," Richter said.

Parking designed for a mall

The downtown's changing face post-flood requires a different parking strategy. Much of the parking space was built to serve a mall housing retail businesses. Shoppers would come for an hour and then leave. Now, most of the traffic is driven by the movie theater, meaning visitors stay two to three hours. Plus, movies are attracting dramatically more traffic than the mall's retail stores.

"(City leaders) asked me when I came if I anticipated any problem and I told them it was parking," Moore said. "They almost laughed at me because they were looking at a failed building where nothing had happened.

"But the city has been great to us and it has worked out well."

As far as parking is concerned, it has worked out too well.

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Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to rbakken@gfherald.com .

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