Dining With Denise Neil

Owners of new Wichita brewery accuse the city of 'money grab' in ongoing parking debate

Dan Norton, owner of Nortons Brewing Company, is upset about parking enforcement by the city of Wichita that he says started after he opened his brewery at 125 N. St Francis.
Dan Norton, owner of Nortons Brewing Company, is upset about parking enforcement by the city of Wichita that he says started after he opened his brewery at 125 N. St Francis. The Wichita Eagle

A battle is brewing at one of downtown Wichita's newest businesses.

On one side is Nortons Brewing Company, the craft brewery and restaurant that Dan and Becky Norton opened at 125 N. St. Francis in late April, expecting, they say, that the mostly vacant parking lot next to their building would be open for use to their future customers.

On the other side is Wichita Transit and its senior management analyst Scott Wadle, who says the city-owned parking spaces nearest the brewery have long been pay spots and that they will continue to be unless an upcoming parking survey determines the city should go in another direction.

The feud started earlier this year and has included a weeks-long exchange of contentious e-mails, Freedom of Information Act requests and accusations from the business owners that the city is taking advantage of a popular new business and launching a "money grab" at their expense.

And it doesn't look like the fight will end anytime soon. A last-minute attempt by the two sides to come to an agreement over the spaces deteriorated last week. Now the city is promising to begin enforcement in earnest today, Monday, and the Nortons are promising to post banners with Wadle's contact information in the brewery so customers can call and e-mail to express their displeasure. They also are making plans to pay their customers' $2 parking fees — in pennies — in a newly installed pay box, just to make their point.

And their point, says Dan Norton, is that the city should be trying to help, not hurt, small businesses who are working to revive downtown Wichita.

"What are we trying to do here?" Dan Norton said. "Are we trying to grow downtown development and to make it easier for people to open businesses or not?"

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The 40 parking spaces, left, near Nortons Brewing Company are at the heart of a battle between the new business and Wichita Transit. Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

'Money grab'

The Nortons dreamed about opening their own brewery for years, often staying up late and talking out the details on their front porch.

They finally found a spot they liked — a cavernous old boat dealership on St. Francis, just a block off Douglas in downtown Wichita. It was big enough to have a patio and a large dining room and to hold Dan's brewing tanks and equipment. And it had lots of parking spaces, both to the west of the building and to the south.

The lots were city-owned, the Nortons knew, but the one just outside their future front door was mostly unused, they said, and there was no visible indication there was a fee to park in the 40 spaces.

Dan said they were about three-quarters of the way done with construction in January when suddenly, numbered parking stalls were painted in the lot and a self-serve pre-pay box, where lot users are asked to insert $2 for a day's worth of parking, was erected.

It didn't seem right to the Nortons that the city was going to try to collect parking revenue now that a new business was opening when it hadn't been interested in doing so before.

"Obviously it looks like a money grab to us," Dan said. "They swooped in and turned the south lot into a pay lot when we were almost done with construction, and now they're continuing the shadiness, in our eyes."

Since opening in late April, the brewery has been a hit, and the 9,000-square-foot business has been packed every day. The few street parking spaces on St. Francis fill quickly.

Though $2 isn't outrageous, Dan said, he worries that people aren't noticing the pay box, which sits adjacent to the sidewalk facing St. Francis, and that once his customers start getting $25 tickets, they'll decide to go somewhere else next time.

Wadle said that in fact both the lot to the south and the lot to the west have long been pay lots. The Value Center, a resale shop at the corner of Douglas and St. Francis that closed in September, had been leasing the spots to the south of Nortons that are at the heart of the current debate, and they'd erected signs claiming the spots as their own. Wadle said his department did not consider it a "best practice" to have a public lot reserved by a single business and was about to approach the Value Center owners when the business suddenly closed.

In the summer of last year, Wadle said, his department hired a third-party company, The Car Park, to begin managing the lots. The pay box in the lot south of Nortons was put up in January. The lot to the west of Nortons had new pay boxes installed there in October, he said. The Car Park's job is to patrol the lots and issue $25 violation notices to those who have not paid. If people don't pay their tickets, they're turned over to collections, not to the courts.

The department had been discussing how to better utilize the lots before Nortons was in the picture, Wadle said. And although he understands the owners' frustration, he said, they never reached out before they started construction to check on the rules for the lot.

"We did not hear from them before they signed the lease," Wadle said. "If you're going to open a business and you're focused on parking, you should probably contact the people who own the lot next to you."

Little orange envelopes

When the lot next to the brewery got its pay box in January, the Nortons asked for and got a meeting with Wadle. At the meeting, Dan said, he listed his concerns, and Wadle said he'd do more research and meet with them in two weeks.

But the city canceled that meeting, Dan said, and that was the last contact he had with them until the brewery opened in April and customers began getting little orange envelopes on their cars: violation notices that came with a $25 fine.

Infuriated, Norton posted a sign on his entrance, photographed it and shared it on social media with the hashtag #fightthepower.

"The city decided to turn this parking lot into a pay lot after we leased our building and we were almost done with construction," it read. "Supposedly, nights and weekends are free. We are fighting this tooth and nail."

The sign encouraged anyone who was ticketed to reach out to their local government officials and express their displeasure.

Then they heard from the city, he said, who said they'd suspend enforcement while they did more research. But shortly after, Norton said, he was told that not only would the lot remain a pay lot but that enforcement would be added on nights and weekends as well.

The Nortons were incensed and filed Freedom of Information Act requests for e-mails between Wadle's office and The Car Park, who manages the lots. When they got the e-mails, they found one they considered particularly egregious.

The e-mail was written by John Dao, manager of The Car Park, and sent to Wadle. It was dated three days after Nortons opened and contained a report from the previous weekend of how many cars parked in the lot and how many had paid.

"It seems on Friday we missed out on approximately $500 to $700 in revenue once all collected," it read. "Occupancy in this lot is much higher over the past weekend due to Nortons opening."

The e-mail finished: "These are estimates, but I do believe that we are missing out on a lot by letting this lot go. Let me know what your thoughts are on this."

Wadle says the e-mail was nothing more than a standard communication from a third-party contractor they'd hired to do a job.

"It was a reminder from the contractor that we hire to manage the lots that, look, this is not a good situation. You've got a lot of folks that are utilizing a lot and they're not paying anything for it and you are missing out on revenues from this."

No such thing as free parking

The bottom line, said Wadle, is that there is no such thing as free parking.

The city had been planning improvements to those lots long before it even knew Nortons was coming, he said.

"Parking costs money. It costs money to purchase the land, to operate it, to maintain it," he said. "If the people who are parking there aren't paying for it, who is?"

The Nortons had at one point asked the city to let them lease the lot so they could cover the costs for their customers. After a call from The Eagle two weeks ago about the debate, Wadle offered to allow Nortons to lease the spaces for $1,240 a month and to put off enforcing parking until they made a decision.

Ultimately, Dan said, he decided that he couldn't absorb the fee into the budget of his new business and again asked the city to reconsider.

The city is in the midst of coming up with a new parking plan for Wichita, and it will include a survey and community meetings where people can have input about how the city should provide parking, who should operate it and what role the city should play. He expects the plan could be ready by early 2019.

He doesn't want to make a new deal over one lot before then, but if the Nortons have another idea, he's willing to entertain it, he said.

In the meantime, enforcement will begin today. And, Dan Norton said, so will the next phase of his resistance.

"What it all boils down to is the city owns the lot and they can do what they want with it," he said. "It just seems shady when a new business opens and this happens to them right after they pour a lot of money into the project."

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