Lloyd Merrell is right; safety must come first.
Sealy’s city manager has floated a controversial proposal to remove parking from the middle of Main Street downtown. Several of the merchants who do business there are staunchly opposed to the proposal. They say – correctly – that parking is scarce downtown and we need all the space we can get. They argue that if customers can’t park near or in front of their establishments that they will lose business.
Merrell, however, said that it is dangerous to have cars parking in the middle of the street. He fears it is only a matter of time before someone, probably a small child or an elderly person, is hit and seriously injured or killed walking into traffic around the middle parking spaces.
When large SUVs or pickup trucks park downtown it is very difficult to maneuver around them. Even Police Chief Jay Reeves has instructed his officers to avoid driving patrols on Main Street because of the potential for damage to vehicles.
Merrell and Assistant City Manager/Planning Director Warren Escovy have been working on a plan to improve the Main Street/downtown area. Among their ideas are beautification proposals, adding safety rails along sidewalks with big drops to the street, the creation of parking lots and the removal of middle parking. They would also change parking spaces from angled to 90-degree parking, which creates even more spaces.
At a meeting with merchants last month, the city officials explained that they would remove 31 spaces and replace them with nearly 40 spaces via additional parking on Front Street and construction of a parking lot next to Bill’s Country Market.
The proposals for Main Street by our city officials are admirable. Safety must be the top priority guiding any changes downtown. Removing middle parking and moving the lanes of traffic to the middle of the street provides the safest option for everyone involved. Downtown will also be safer if police patrols can resume and emergency vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances can get through unhindered.
The struggle facing Sealy’s downtown is not anything new. Cities big and small across the nation have and continue to struggle with parking and safety concerns. The ones that have been the most successful, however, are the ones that have made their downtown areas safe, attractive, and pedestrian friendly. If merchants downtown want to increase foot traffic to their stores, it must first be safe and appealing for there to be foot traffic.
The merchants have claimed that their customers will go away if they can’t park close. If that is true, then the employees of the downtown businesses should park on Front Street, at the new parking lot or other locations and leave the spaces in front of the stores for customers.
There is ample evidence, however, that when changes are made that people will adapt. There are many historic districts and Main Streets across the land that have moved parking to parking lots and perimeter areas and they have flourished as a result.
A prime example of that is the resort town of Estes Park, Colo. Constrained by narrow streets and mountainsides, the town created parking lots much further away from the main strip than what Sealy is proposing and that opened up the town to more tourism and business growth. Merchants there made many of the same arguments, but now they have more customers than they can handle.
The arguments against moving center parking seem to be based out of fear and not fact. One of the biggest business killers is the attitude of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Have those who fear losing customers stopped to think about how much business they might be losing because people don’t feel safe coming downtown? It’s quite possible business will improve if Main Street is made safer and more inviting.
Change is coming to Sealy. There is no stopping it. People who make their livelihood here should be on the side of progress and embracing change rather than resisting it. Rather than digging in their heels and resisting, business owners should be asking how they can help. Their input is vital to the success of Main Street and downtown. City officials don’t want to work in a vacuum. They want and need input. Working together will make downtown the kind of place all of us want and need it to be.