, , ,

La Crosse Continues To Fight Vandalism In Downtown Parking Ramps

City Reinstalled Parking Pay Stations While Looking For New System

Hope Kirwan/WPR

The city of La Crosse is increasing parking options to serve an expanding downtown, but local officials are still struggling to find the best way to monetize the city’s existing parking ramps.

After installing a pay station system in 2014, the city had to replace the stations’ gates almost 200 times in two years due to vandalism.

“That’s an unusually high number,” said Casey Jones, spokesperson for the International Parking Institute.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Jones said vandalism of pay systems is inevitable in public parking, but the frequency of people damaging property in La Crosse is surprising.

“Most people respect that parking facilities are there to sort of manage the in and out and that it’s not OK to drive through a parking gate and ruin that equipment,” Jones said.

However, drivers trying to avoid parking fees aren’t the only ones who are breaking the gates, said Jim Flottmeyer, La Crosse’s parking utility coordinator.

“Sometimes they’re just walking by and doing it,” Flottmeyer said.

The continued vandalism is a “good problem to have” because it stems from more people visiting the downtown area, he said. Restaurants, stores, hotels and housing have continued to open or expand in downtown La Crosse over the last few years, and the area also has an active nightlife.

“(The downtown area) serves two distinctly different customers, and sometimes some of the nightlife people don’t treat it as good as they should,” he said.

The vandalism continued until the city decided to remove the pay station gates in February while exploring alternative systems.

The gates were reinstalled July 25, but the city is still looking to replace the pay stations because the city can’t continue to allow people to park in the ramps for free, Flottmeyer said.

“We’re not moving the hourly people out, so the downtown merchants aren’t getting that turn over that they like to see,” Flottmeyer said.

While the old system is going back into operation, city officials have a new plan to deal with those who vandalize equipment in the garages.

“They’re not going to get a fine or some little ticket, they’re going to jail,” Flottmeyer said.

City officials also decided to hire a private security company to patrol the garages.

Flottmeyer said it’s unclear how much La Crosse has spent on efforts to monetize the downtown parking ramps between the new security, replacing the stations’ gates and lost parking revenue from the last five months.

“With parking being such an integral part of everything that goes on, it’s just kind of the price you pay,” Flottmeyer said. “Cars have to go somewhere, damage happens, maintenance happens, so it’s just kind of the price of doing business.”

James Cherf, City Council member and downtown business owner, agrees: “It’s one of those situations, if somebody’s in business like myself, where you have to spend a little money to make money.

Public parking always comes at a cost to the city, whether it’s on a neighborhood street or in a ramp downtown, Cherf said.

Parking experts agree that drivers’ experience with public parking can impact their opinion of the city, Jones said.

“Parking is the first and last impression,” he said. “It’s something that everybody that’s driving needs, so to really focus attention on making it the best experience as possible is really important.”

While Cherf said he’d like to see more people carpooling or using public transit, La Crosse has to respond to the public’s demand for better parking options.

“With people come cars,” he said. “That’s part of the American culture and they need a place to park.”

For now, people will use the existing pay stations in the downtown ramps. Parking will continue to be free on nights and weekends, with the gates removed from Friday night until Monday morning to reduce opportunities for vandalism.