Commentary: Door County’s Parking Problem


For decades American city centers, village squares and developments have been designed not around people, but cars. Every development or infrastructure project is constrained by a single question – where will people park?

It is now ingrained in nearly every redevelopment discussion we have, even in the tiny villages and towns of northern Door County. For a decade I covered meetings in which people would inevitably place parking issues at the top of priority lists, whether they be discussing new public works projects or single housing, restaurant or retail proposals.

It happened in Sister Bay in 2008 when I was on the citizens advisory committee that lent ideas to the village after it purchased Helm’s Four Seasons resort to expand the beach. It happened again last winter in Fish Creek when it embarked on discussions about redesigning its waterfront, and it’s happening now in Egg Harbor as planning for its village center moves forward.

Every time I hear the cries for more parking, or read about it from afar, I can only shake my head. Are the proponents for parking looking at the same downtowns that I am?

Before moving to Chicago in 2012, I spent stints renting and running businesses in almost every Northern Door community – Baileys Harbor, Fish Creek, Sister Bay, Ephraim and Egg Harbor. I can’t recall ever parking more than a couple hundred feet away from where I wanted to go, ever, in 32 years living there.

Let’s break it down by community.

There are two days a year when parking is in short supply in Baileys Harbor – the Fourth of July and the Saturday of the Door County Beer Festival.

In Sister Bay, the only time other than Fall Fest that I really struggled to find a parking spot was when I showed up late for a shift at the Sister Bay Bowl on a Friday night and the early birds had claimed all the parking spots already.

I grew up in Egg Harbor, then owned a pizza delivery business in which I drove all over town every day and night. Parking was a problem on the Fourth of July and Pumpkin Patch. That was it. Now, you can probably add the Door County Triathlon weekend to that list.

Perhaps Fish Creek could make a good case that they have a parking shortage. At the height of summer it can be frustrating to make a couple loops around Spruce and Cedar streets to find a spot, but even then, one can almost always find a spot behind Noble Square. If not, if one drives just a little further down the road, you’ll almost surely find a spot by the time you get to Nan & Jerry’s a couple of city blocks away.

Even on the busiest of days, which are usually holidays, each of our communities has plenty of options for overflow parking. In Baileys Harbor a shuttle connects overflow parking on F & EE or the Rec Park on the edges of town to downtown.

Shared parking arrangements with private businesses, churches and schools in other communities could go a long way toward ending the supposed parking crisis in each town. Such agreements have been in place for decades in communities large and small throughout the country.

In Egg Harbor, the parking lot at Calvary United Methodist Church on the north end of town, or St. John’s Catholic Church on the south end, are empty most days of the year, as is parking on Church Street behind the village.

In Sister Bay, large swaths of parking sit empty behind Bhirdo’s, at the Sports Complex, and at St. Rosalia’s church on the top of the big hill, less than a half-mile from Al Johnson’s, not to mention Casperson’s Funeral Home in the center of town. During the day, the Sister Bay Bowl parking lot is empty as well.

And let’s say you head to Fish Creek on the busiest Saturdays of July and August and there still aren’t parking spots along the street or behind the community center, you will still find huge empty parking lots at St. Paul’s Catholic Church and Gibraltar School on the north end of town.

“But those are too far away!” the pavement proponents cry.

Well, the distance from St. Paul’s to the Bayside Tavern is just a hair more than a half-mile, or roughly 3.5 city blocks. Not exactly daunting.

And here’s the thing about Fish Creek. Every time a community goes into a planning session, they talk about how they wish they had a busy retail sector like Fish Creek, which leads one to the conclusion that ample parking has little correlation with a thriving retail and dining scene (nor do setbacks, as Fish Creek’s busiest corner has none).

But maybe it’s a problem of perception. When I lived in Door County, I was used to walking five feet from my front door to my car, and then parking pretty much at the door of the place I wanted to go. In Chicago, I will gladly pay a few dollars to park within a couple of blocks of a destination, which is just about the farthest away you ever have to park in Door County – and it’s free!

It’s not a bad thing to design towns so people have to park in one place, get out of their car, and walk through your town, passing storefronts and smelling grills. In fact, it’s what good design is all about. How many pictures have you seen of sunsets over parking lots?

Smart steps in managing parking have been made in certain communities. Fish Creek is talking about adding better signage to direct visitors to public parking in town. Sister Bay put a moratorium on parking requirements for new businesses and expansions, but it also exchanged green space in the heart of downtown for a parking lot.

A close look at each Door County community reveals several large parking lots that sit empty for most of every day, even in July and August, wide swaths of blacktop sending runoff unfiltered into groundwater, wetlands and the lake, all for the one percent of time they are needed. Still, we keep building more, all to avoid a few moments of frustration a few days a year, and so we don’t have to walk a few extra car lengths to the door.

If one turns a creative eye toward parking, it turns out the only parking problem in Door County is that people think there is one.

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