By Tim Eberly
Two and a half years after the seed was planted for the development of a town square park, a cluster of Havre business owners are again voicing objections just months before proponents intend to plant the park's first tree.
"The Chamber of Commerce seems to be adamant that this is the greatest thing that ever happened to Havre but I don't think it is," said Russ DeVries, owner of the Oxford Billiard Parlor. "I think it's a poor idea."
At no charge, Wells Fargo Bank and the Bear Paw Credit Union are leasing property on the south side of First Street between Third and Fourth avenues to the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce for development as a park. It will boast a 20-foot Christmas tree to be planted this fall, surrounded by at least a dozen trees on the northern half of the property. The Chamber will use the southern half for a parking lot with 57 spaces. Ground-breaking for the park will begin this spring.
"The intention of the park is to help the economy in one way, shape or form," said Chamber of Commerce park committe member Garrett Edmonds. "It's supposed to help with tourism and make it more enticing to live here."
Yet downtown proprietors think the decreased number of parking places the land to be leased currently hosts roughly 70 parking spots, so the net loss is about 13 spaces will stunt their profits. More so, they say, if the Montana Department of Transportation follows through with its plan to add turning lanes on First Street. One of the multiple scenarios to complete that project would result in erasing parking on the south side of U.S. Highway 2 in front of of the park.
"We couldn't seem to convince anybody on the Chamber that the (DOT project) cast a whole different light on the plans to build a new park," said Jupe Compton, owner of the Palace Bar and president of the Hill County Tavern Association. "Each parking spot became more critical. Any parking spot in the downtown area would be at a premium."
Said Dale Staudacher of the Staudacher Insurance Agency: "Pretty soon it's going to be a beautiful place to drive through with no parking."
Compton, DeVries and at least five other business owners met with members of the Chamber's park committee in June to attempt to strike a compromise. During the meeting, Larry Adams, a local landscaper who designed the park, offered to sketch a new plan. A revised design was concocted, but it consisted of too many parking spaces and a much smaller grassy area, said Edmonds. Wells Fargo and the Bear Paw Credit Union, along with financial backers of the park, agreed to the original plan and any deviation from that would have put the Chamber in a precarious position, Edmonds said. Excluding volunteer efforts, the future park is estimated to cost $180,000 $40,000 of which has already been donated while the Chamber is applying for another $55,000 in grants. At last year's Festival Days weekend, the Chamber raised $18,000 in donations from a pitchfork fondue fund-raiser.
"We raised funds and set up the lease based on the original plan, and to change the plan that drastically was not agreeable to the contributors and the leaseholders," Edmonds said.
Though the plan was already finalized, the Chamber did approach the Bear Paw Credit Union and request five more parking spaces on the southeast side of the lot. The Bear Paw Credit Union obliged, and also said residents could use the far west end of the lot for parking horse trailers.
"Folks need to understand that this is private property and if it were to be sold, there would be no public parking at all," said park committee member Kevin Keim. "The folks who are working on this committee have a lot of pride in the community. We look at this space and believe that it has much more potential than a parking lot."
Debbie Hedstrom, also a member of the park committee, concurred. "This is private property. First Street needs to realize that. We entered into a legal agreement with Wells Fargo and the Bear Paw Credit Union. What's the difference between that agreement and if somebody wanted to put a business there?"
Some proprietors, like the Palace's Compton, are not opposed to the park but rather the compounding effect of the park and DOT project, which is scheduled for completion in 2007.
In 1995, the city of Havre paid $10,000 to conduct a survey called Revitalizing Downtown Havre. In it, Bozeman development planner Keith Swenson calculated that Havre had 1,344 parking spaces in 16 square blocks in the community business district. At that time, the average American town had 72 parking spaces per 1,000 residents. Swenson's research showed that Havre, with a 1995 population of 10,878 citizens, contained 133 parking spaces per 1,000 residents nearly double the national average of cities of comparable size. As a comparison, the town of Astoria, Ore., had 10,100 residents in 1995 but only 730 parking spaces in its downtown area. Since 1995, Havre's population has increased by 178 people but the number of businesses on U.S. Highway 2 has decreased.
DeVries, however, has a different perspective. "Why don't they acknowledge that things change since the survey was done?" he said. "My survey is that I've been on that block for 23 years."
A similar controversy brewed in 1990 when Burlington Northern upgraded property in front of the train depot, paving 10 city blocks, erecting a park with evergreen trees, constructing curbs and sidewalks and installing a sprinkler system. Bordering business owners expressed their concern about parking rearrangements and the two sides, P.J.'s Restaurant & Casino owner Jerry Bergren said, were able to work out an agreement.
"We had some differences and we ironed them out," said Bergren.
Wells Fargo, which owns seven of the eight individual lots on the proposed town square property, has a nonpartisan stance.
"Our position all along is that Wells Fargo has taken a neutral position on the development of the park," said Alan Pearson, the district president of Wells Fargo. "We lived up to our end of the bargain. If downtown businesses have a concern or a problem, they need to express that to the Chamber."
Mayor Phyllis Leonard spawned the idea for a park on the main strip in 1994. Her idea was later galvanized in February 1999, during a Chamber of Commerce board of directors retreat. Leonard said she disengaged herself from the project last year.