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Parking lot is left in neutral

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The Berean Baptist Church property will not become a parking lot. Not this year, anyway.

Becker County has asked that the parking issue be tabled, and the city council has complied.

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Discussion at the Detroit Lakes Planning Commission led to discussion at the Community Development Committee meeting and finally to the city council about the county's request to allow a parking lot of 95 spaces where the Berean Baptist Church now stands at the corner of Lake Avenue and Frazee Street.

When the Becker County Courthouse addition was approved, it was understood the county would be building a parking ramp in the southwest portion of the Washington Square Mall parking lot. Bids came in higher than the county anticipated, and the parking project was put on hold.

Since then, the church has stepped forward and offered to sell property to the county.

County Administrator Brian Berg said it's not just about cost for the ramp. People weren't exactly excited to see a parking ramp in Detroit Lakes, either. They aren't excited to see a parking lot in a residential section.

"Were they jumping up and down saying this is the best thing since sliced bread? No," he said of a parking committee set up to discuss options.

At the Community Development Committee meeting Monday afternoon, Berg said the county would be willing to keep one of the houses as a buffer. The county has a purchase agreement for the church, parsonage and one house to the south. They have an option on two more houses to the south.

By leaving one house as a buffer, the county would be down to 67 spaces -- it asked for 95 originally and has a waiver for 100 -- and with a two-house buffer, the number would be about 50 spaces.

Estimated cost for the parking lot is $1.2 million, and the bid for the parking ramp came in at $1.9 million.

County Commissioner Barry Nelson said, "We were approached by the church. We need to make that clear."

Former County Commissioner Bob Bristlin said he felt parking is all part of a building permit and the county should think into the future, going with the ramp, not the parking lot.

"How do you get a permit without a parking plan?" he questioned.

Community Development Director Larry Remmen said the county got the permit because the ramp was the proposal at the time.

Berg insists the ramp option isn't off the table yet.

Bristlin also pointed out that with the ramp option, the city and the county were going in on costs, and thinks the city should pitch in on whatever is decided.

"To me, it should be a joint venture," he said.

Nelson said that if the ramp is built, the city will be asked to pitch in on costs. He said he doesn't think a ramp is the answer right now, but maybe is in the future.

"You're going to be criticized no matter what you do," he said.

Bristlin said the county should buy the Berean property regardless, because in the future, the county is going to need area for expansion, but that the county would be better off with a ramp.

County Commissioner Harry Salminen questioned how the Holy Rosary Church and library could get building permits without parking plans as well.

Remmen replied that the Catholic church had enough spaces as it was and the library has not proposed an addition yet.

When asked if anyone on the commission would like a parking lot next to their home, no one responded.

"I am so against a parking lot so close to my house," said Lake Avenue resident Ruth Buckley. "A parking lot is very sterile. I'll pay extra taxes for a ramp."

Mike Hutchinson, Lakeshirts co-owner, agreed that he'd pay more in taxes for a ramp than leveling a part of residential block for a parking lot.

"In my mind, Brian (Berg) told why we need a ramp," he said after Berg spoke for roughly 20 minutes about the county's expansion needs.

"I'm all for a parking ramp, and dead set against a parking lot," Hutchinson said.

"A hearty 'amen' to everything he said," Lake Avenue resident Barb Schiller said.

She also stated that the parking lot wouldn't serve the city because it's only close to the courthouse.

Berean Baptist Church Member Gene Miller said the church will "absolutely" be up for sale even if the county doesn't purchase it, because the church has directed him to find a buyer since the church is simply not feasible for the congregation anymore.

"The building is not adequate for us. It's structurally not good," he said. He added that there is an overwhelming need for parking. There is only room for 10-12 cars behind the church.

"The church is going to have a difficulty to grow," he said, because it looks to others that the church is always full since there is no parking in the lot and the streets are lined on Sundays.

Several people stated even if the county doesn't purchase the land and ask for a parking lot, some other structure is going to go into the lot, and it could be a worse request.

"I don't think it's going to go away," Salminen said.

Glen Stearns was the only resident in the audience to speak in favor of the parking lot and against the ramp -- too much money and maintenance, he said.

"Take advantage of this opportunity," he added.

After taking comments and questions from the audience for well over an hour, the Community Development Committee discussed other options. Some pointed out that the business district, along with the city, should pay for the parking venture because of the potential benefits.

Alderman Walt Tollefson agreed that no one wants a parking lot next to his or her house and felt the commissions and council needed more time to look into more options. He brought up the city lot west of the mall that is rarely used.

"I think we need to take a step back and take a look," he said.

Alderman, and planning commission chair G.L. Tucker suggested putting the issue on hold for a year and doing a study throughout the year to determine if the parking is actually needed. He said someone should be hired to survey lots throughout the city at different periods of the day to give a "data driven" decision on the matter.

It was also suggested the company RDG Consulting --hired to do the study on a possible convention center -- include the parking matter in its study. Remmen said he would check into it and see if that was a possibility.

Tuesday evening at the city council meeting, it was suggested giving the county until Dec. 31, 2008, to decide what to do on the parking issue. Some aldermen opposed that, saying there needs to be a decision by at least April 1.

Alderman Matt Brenk suggested tabling the issue for one month to discuss it more and define a timeline.

Alderman Bruce Imholte reminded the council that it was the council that encouraged the county to keep the courthouse downtown and now it was the council putting the county in a bind with the parking issue.

Alderman Jim Anderson said the downtown study by RDG would be completed by June or July of next summer, and the parking issue could be addressed with more information at that time. The study will include the area from Lodge on Lake Detroit, along Highway 10, down Washington Avenue and West Lake Drive to Legion Road.

"We're tying up the church, tying up the people, tying up the county," Alderman Leonard Heltemes said about waiting until later than April 1.

A motion to have a decision by April 1 failed on a 3-5 vote, with Heltemes, James Hannon and Ron Zeman voting in favor.

The issue was tabled until next month's meeting. It will be discussed at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13, in the Community Development Committee.

The Berean Church is moving forward regardless.

The church has plans to build a new facility along Highway 34 and Pelican Lane. The council passed a request for a feasibility study and cost estimates for extending city sewer and water to the church's new property.

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