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Parking Garage Project Sparks Hope For Downtown Rebirth In Springfield

In Clark County, work is underway on a project some in the city see as critical to the long-hoped-for revival of downtown Springfield. It’s a nearly $7 million parking garage.

The garage is attracting a lot of buzz, but as WYSO Clark County reporter Tom Stafford, who also writes for the Springfield News-Sun, reports, in order for the project to succeed in promoting development, three critical elements need to be in place.

Stafford spoke with WYSO Managing Editor Jess Mador.

When it opens in April, the new city parking garage at Fountain Ave. and Main Street will accommodate 307 vehicles. But the $6.8 million public investment is being made in hopes that the garage itself will be a vehicle to revitalize Springfield’s downtown, making it a place where people will work live, work and play.

With contributions of $3 million from the city, $2.55 million from the state of Ohio and $1 million from the county government, the three-story structure is rising at a time of rising hopes and expectations among many in the city.

Like many so-called Rust Belt communities, Springfield saw its once vital downtown empty out in the 1970s and 1980s, when a mall opened outside of town and the downtown’s retail and commercial block was leveled in the era of urban renewal. The former retail heart of the city gave way to a cityscape of banks and governmental institutions with little retail traffic. 

In recent years people have begun to return, drawn by coffee shops, restaurants, a craft brewery and a variety of community events – including a farmer’s market -- designed to plant the seeds for redevelopment.

Although the downtown already has plenty of scattered ground-level parking, a coalition of city leaders contend that to attract the scale of business that can help reestablish the downtown's vibrancy and bolster the economy the city needs to provide a safe, central location for their employees and customers to park.

“If we can’t point to a structure that’s safe, affordable and convenient,” attracting such businesses is, ”a difficult proposition,” said Horton Hobbes IV, vice president for economic development at the Chamber of Greater Springfield.

John Landess, head of the Springfield-based Turner Foundation, is pithier:

“When you’re dealing with a company of that size, they’re not used to parking their employees on a gravel pit,” he said.  

Such businesses are important both for the economy and the city’s tax revenues, which provide basic city services.

A study done more than a decade ago recommended the lot be placed at Fountain Ave. and Columbia St., in part because the garage is on the same block as two buildings with excess office space: The Bushnell Building and Hull Plaza, the former First National Bank building.

“We have buildings we need to put money into,” said Landess, whose officers are in the Hull Building. Without adequate parking, “It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” he said.

While the new parking project is aimed at getting more people to work in  downtown, the garage also includes some attributes designed to encourage people to do the two other things planners say are required for a healthy downtown: live and play.

The garage will have a pocket park for those who visit retail shops on the east side of Fountain Ave., and the garage’s first floor will add three spaces for retail on the street’s west side.

That’s crucial, said Maureen Fagans, executive director of United Senior Services, which recently renovated its downtown facility.

Fagans, who has a degree in city planning, said Fountain Avenue represents, “our one opportunity [downtown] to create retail on both sides of the street, which will be a boom to every business that locates there. It will. I believe it strongly.”

A mural on the garage’s west side will add to others painted downtown in the past year, and will face the beginnings of what could become 35 residential town homes two blocks to the west. The units, which will start at $200,000 represent the first significant residential project in the downtown in decades.

The development is located across the street from Mother Stewart’s Brewery and the Hatch Artist Studios, often the busy center of activities on First Friday gatherings.

Some critics say the garage should have had more parking spaces to help  spur development. Others counter that caution about public investment in cities the size of Springfield is appropriate, because if the garage is not filled, the city government is at risk for being behind the financial eight ball.

Ultimately, the garage’s size was decided by available funding, and while he says he's comfortable with the number of spaces in the facility, city manager Bryan Heck said, “the partnership that has formed around the garage,” has established a community leadership infrastructure can easily be reassembled for additional development projects in the future.

Landess said that the garage project is also important because it shows the community’s commitment to the downtown, something he hopes will prompt local investors who have been watching from the sidelines into the development picture.

Said Landess, “We have plenty of people of financial means that could invest and make things happen down here.”

Mike McDorman, Chamber CEO and president, said the stakes involved for the city are huge.

“If we do not build a vibrant community, starting with the downtown, we are not going to attract the talent of the future,” required for the city to thrive.

The Chamber’s Hobbes said that going forward, it will be important to fill in gaps in the downtown to connect the “hot spots” like the Fountain Ave. Shops.

Fagans said the ultimate goal is to create a continuous cityscape that creates “a sense of place” in which “people feel safe and comfortable.”

“You have to have wide enough sidewalks and on-street parking and streetlights that provide enough lighting for evening walks. You also have to create two-way streets [to] slow traffic down,” she said.

But while there remains much to be done to develop the downtown, she said, “people are interested again. There was a time when nobody would even consider a project in our downtown. So, we’re starting to come around the bend.”

“We do have the promise of a revitalized, vibrant downtown again.”