A number of business owners in Bingen are expressing concern that the planned State Route 14 paving project through the downtown corridor will severely hurt their businesses.
In particular, a proposal to close Ash Street from SR 14 south -- which merchants fear would eliminate as many as 10-12 parking spaces -- is also raising their ire. A petition that opposes the closure of Ash Street is being circulated in Bingen in an effort to get the city to reconsider closing the street segment.
Merchants believe the highway reconstruction project will end up removing parking spots from in front of many stores, and will actually reduce the overall number of parking spaces downtown. That will translate into reduced customer traffic and hurt their economic margins, they worry.
"We Bingen merchants are beside ourselves," said Donna Zitur, owner of the Gorge House restaurant, which recently closed. "It is stupid to eliminate more parking. Business owners are not getting heard."
Doug Austin, owner of Fiberglass Supply, Inc., also sharply questioned the proposals that could lead to lost parking. In an excerpt from a letter to Chuck Ruhsenberger, area engineer for the Washington Department of Transportation, Austin wrote:
"The Bingen Downtown Revitalization Plan as currently being implemented by the city of Bingen and WDOT results in a reduction of existing on-site parking and shipping and loading access for many properties and businesses ... Proposed reductions in on-site parking limits potential use of individual properties, compromises the potential of individual properties, discourages investment by individual property owners, and reduces individual property value, which will eventually impact the whole community."
Steve Wolford, owner of Antiques & Oddities, Inc., said he is supportive of downtown revitalization in general, but wants to make sure no jobs are lost in the process.
"Right now, our parking is pretty well maxed out," Wolford said. "More parking is what was needed, but parking is proposed on Humboldt Street or below on Depot Street. Customers don't park there. A lot of our customers are older people from White Salmon, and they can't walk up the slope. It's survival here as it is, so by removing parking further, more businesses will fail."
Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel said, however, that even with the closure of Ash Street to through traffic, the parking spaces will remain.
"We're not going to lose any spaces there," Prigel said. "It will just be accessible from Depot Street instead of from Steuben."
City officials also disputed the notion that parking along SR 14 in the core business district would be reduced.
Jan Brending, Bingen's city clerk, said that when the work is completed, the town will see a net gain of 30 parking spaces.
Brending stressed that those spaces are on Steuben Street (SR 14) itself, and not on side streets or in potential parking lots elsewhere.
"Between Maple Street and Willow Street, there are currently 48 existing parking spaces. There will be 78 when it's done," Brending said.
Prigel said the new spaces will primarily be in front of the Winery Building, where there is no public parking now, and also on both sides of the road in the 400 W. Steuben block.
"There will be parallel parking on both sides of the highway there, and that is currently not public parking," Prigel said.
But Prigel conceded that a handful of centrally-located parking spots in the business district would be lost due to regulations regarding proximity to crosswalks.
Business owners are worried that customers won't want to park and walk several blocks to get to their businesses.
"If this were San Francisco, that would be great," said Jason Irwin, former manager of the Gorge House restaurant. Irwin pointed out that customers are accustomed to being able to pull up fairly close to a store and run in.
Zitur said city and Washington Department of Transportation officials were not listening to the concerns of downtown business owners.
"At the initial meeting we made comments, but nothing was done. They bulldozed us and did whatever they wanted to. We're pretty upset," Zitur said. "It's time to quit polishing the carriage and letting the horse die. Apparently the city is doing this for the residents and not the merchants. Any comments we've made have been lost."
"We absolutely are doing this for the residents," Prigel responded. "Residents would like to have a thriving, inviting, aesthetically-pleasing place downtown to spend time. If the public doesn't want to spend time downtown, they're not going to spend money downtown either. So we absolutely are doing this for the residents. But I'm not sure `residents' is the correct term. It's citizens of the community. The plans are driven by the needs of the community, and not solely business needs."
Prigel added that the planning for this has been ongoing for years.
"This process has been four years in the making, and driven by local input," he said.
"The plans have changed so much that nobody can really follow it," Wolford commented.
Wolford added that the idea of putting a rest area in the Ash Street-Depot Street area off SR 14 is unwise.
"What's the benefit of opening a rest area there?" Wolford questioned. "It's not a scenic viewpoint. Why take a valuable commercial area and turn it into a rest stop? I don't want to appear negative; I'm very supportive of the revitalization plans, but I just question the long-term impacts and I think most businesses do."
Prigel said it is not a rest area that is being proposed, but rather public rest rooms.
"Currently, there are no rest rooms downtown," Prigel said. "And we would like to have public rest rooms down there somewhere. That is in our long-range plans."
However, city officials pointed out that the rest rooms and proposed small "pocket park" at the end of Ash Street was a City Council decision, and council members could change it if they chose to do so.
"If merchants want to bring this before the City Council, they can alter the plans," Brending explained. "But the need for public rest rooms was identified in the Community Action Plan. I thought the idea was to get people to stop. I don't understand the opposition."