Take one look at this photo and tell me why the businesses along this roadway struggle. This is Wautoma, Wisconsin, a town of just over 2,000 in east Central Wisconsin, deep in the heart of Packer-land. Wautoma is nice, with some lakes and recreation nearby, and the Moose Inn (Friday fish fry!) located just east of town. However, like many small towns near resorts and cabins, I never actually see the downtown area because groceries and gas are located out on the stroad at the edge of town. I was looking forward to seeing Main Street, and I immediately identified the problem – on-street parking is forbidden.
My family spent this past weekend at a relative’s cottage nearby, and since it was too cold to swim, we went in to Wautoma in search of the candy store and video game arcade my wife and kids visited during a visit last October. I wasn’t too familiar with Main Street in Wautoma (but very familiar with the grocery store along the stroad on the east end of town), and as I approached our destination, I was expecting to simply park on the street. I was surprised to find that on-street parking wasn’t allowed. As you can see in the linked image, the street is four lanes wide, and I suspect the fact that parts of three state highways (21, 22 and 73) traverse Main Street are the reason on-street parking is forbidden. I had to park in off-street lot beside the building.
Located in the old movie theater on Main Street that had been converted in to small commercial spaces, the video arcade is gone but the candy store remains. There aren’t a lot of other destinations along the two-block core of the original downtown, and candy stores and arcades, when they do exist, don’t pay high rent. But there certainly is potential in the older handsome commercial buildings. But I can understand why businesses struggle – driving in to downtown my intuition told me there isn’t much going on here and the road told me to keep driving and not slow down. The city made the mistake of building a library along this stretch (at right of image in link), but they forgot to add windows, so there is a big mural facing Main Street but no life. Look closely at the image and you can see decorative lampposts, which this time of year have scarecrows, a hollow attempt at creating street life, despite the potential for those storefronts.
What is just so sad is how the roadway is preventing the downtown from its potential. I don’t know the exact story in Wautoma, but I suspect it is a similar relationship between the state DOT and local officials. Why do you need four lanes of through traffic in a downtown of 2,000 people? But for all I know local leaders don’t want to risk traffic congestion, either. But simply allowing parking would do so much more than scarecrows can. Nearby Berlin, for example, allows on-street parking and has a relatively thriving (and quite beautiful) downtown.
I’d like to think WisDOT and the City of Wautoma could immediately agree to take down those no parking signs, maybe replacing them with 2 Hour parking or something appropriate (but I know it isn’t that simple). That alone could do so much by providing convenient parking options and a buffer to make pedestrians (and scarecrows) feel more comfortable, not to mention slowing traffic. The cost is minimal and the potential upside is significant. Worry about expenses like curb bumpouts, street trees and code revisions later, but in the meantime try to attract some businesses and events downtown by simply allowing on-street parking.
This was cross-posted at Joe Urban.