Debbie Murray's Ford Explorer was towed six miles from the Discovery Center parking lot to RPM Towing & Recovery on the west side of the city. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

OPINION |

Answer Man: If the Discovery Center can have someone on-site on weekend evenings, why can’t it have that person collect a parking fee — to generate revenue — instead of creating ill will by having the vehicles of downtown supporters towed from its otherwise empty parking lot? — Debbie Murray, of Springfield

Murray, a 66-year-old certified public accountant, loves jazz, particularly the big band orchestra MOJO and saxophonist Randy Hamm.

She went to hear MOJO at an outdoor show on Park Central East, near the historic Gillioz Theatre, Saturday, Sept. 24, where she met friends.

Debbie Murray wonders why the Discovery Center doesn’t just charge for parking rather than having vehicles towed from its lot. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

After checking out two public parking lots that were full, she says, she decided to park her Ford Explorer in the nearly empty lot at the Discovery Center. Her vehicle was towed, and it cost her $245 to get it back

I immediately wondered the same thing you’re probably wondering: Is the lot at the Discovery Center clearly marked as private?

It is. The sign says “Tow Away Zone” for unauthorized vehicles 24/7. You will be towed, it says, and it will cost you $200 and another $45 for each day of storage.

I ask Murray if she noticed the sign.

“I kind of saw that there was some sign, but I did not read it closely,” she says.

That night in the parking lot, Murray says, she saw someone inside the door of the Discovery Center.

Apparently, the nonprofit has a person on the premises on off hours to monitor the lot and call the tow truck.

I asked the Discovery Center director her question

When I checked out the signage Tuesday morning, none other than Rob Blevins, executive director of the center, happened to be in the parking lot.

He seemed slightly less thrilled to see me when I posed Murray’s question to him.

Rob Blevins, executive director of the Discovery Center, says it’s frustrating that he and staff are having to spend more time on parking conflicts. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

First of all, he says, he and his staff lately have been spending far too much time on parking lot issues. (His comments in this story come from the face-to-face interview and from an email he later sent me.)

“I want you to know that I still think the article should be about dinosaurs, and NASA, and the Laws of Motion, and how the Discovery Center is one of the best science centers in the world — and not about people parking illegally in our parking lot and taking our resources from us that we would like to be using serving kids,” he says.

Nevertheless, he responded to the question.

The parking lot is private property, he tells me. Yet people treat it as their own.

During weekdays, he says, the lot serves as a playground for the center’s K-8 school.

People have driven right through chain

Some scofflaws have driven right through the chain that once blocked off the lot.

He says Murray’s question about collecting parking revenue instead of having vehicles towed is a question clearly coming from someone who has never owned and managed a downtown Springfield private lot and experienced the accompanying headaches.

“That is a self-centered view,” he says. “It is really way more complicated. I have had to explain this to a lot of people lately.”

People leave trash, liquor bottles and used prophylactics in the parking lot, he says.

People illegally park in the lot overnight and can you imagine the liability at 11 a.m. the next day when they come get their car while children play in the lot?

The Discovery Center also occasionally rents space in its building during weekend evening hours to clubs and organizations. That rental agreement includes use of the parking lot.

The center also occasionally lets other nonprofits use its parking lot for free, he says, but those arrangements are made in advance — not on the spur of the moment by someone who can’t find public parking.

The lot, for example, was open recently to patrons of Ozarks Lyric Opera for an event at the Gillioz, he says.

Huge student housing complex a problem

In an email, Blevins informs me that while I was there, one of his employees had to go across the street to the new five-story The 505 Apartments to let someone there know that a vehicle — believed to belong to a tenant or guest — was about to be towed.

Yes, he says, the Discovery Center has had to increase enforcement-through-towing since the huge student housing complex opened.

According to early reporting, the complex has 194 units and an underground parking garage with roughly 170 parking spaces.

The 505 Apartments, a new student housing complex, has added to parking conflict at the Discovery Center. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association, tells me the apartment complex has since added a surface parking lot.

“Those 500 tenants have friends and guests who come by,” he says.

This is not a case of ‘predatory towing’

Murray took the initiative to meet with Worley Wednesday to express her concern that towing the vehicles of jazz fans like her is not good in the long run for downtown.

Worley says that one of the first things his association does in situations like this is to encourage owners of private lots to have clear signage that forbids public parking.

The Discovery Center already had that, he says.

In addition, he says, Murray had other options for public parking — such as the College Station lot — that had spaces close to her destination.

That’s a matter of educating the public, Worley says.

At times, Worley says, there can be a problem with “predatory towing,” but he does not believe that is what happened to Murray.

Downtown YMCA branch stopped towing

I ask Worley if he believes a nonprofit such as the Discovery Center has a public obligation to try to make its parking lot available in off hours to benefit the city in general and downtown in particular.

“That is a question best put to Rob Blevins,” he says.

I believe I already did that.

“We work with the entire community,” Worley says. “We try to cultivate goodwill. Nonprofits also have to manage their resources. And on some nights they might be having events and activities of their own.

“I have had similar conversations with nonprofits over the years in trying to define that fine line between supporting the public and protecting the interests of your property and your members.”

For example, for a while, the management of the Ward Downtown YMCA branch suddenly increased enforcement and was towing vehicles from its lot on weekends.

How was that resolved?

“They discontinued towing vehicles from their lot.”

Director frustrated by attention to towing

I’ll give Blevins the final word here.

“Please know that if I seem frustrated it’s because having to tow vehicles is a pain, and this isn’t the story that Springfield needs to hear. They need to hear about dinosaurs and about how we’re going to keep the next generation of learners inspired to be life-long learners.

“Our mission is critical, and Springfield is going to miss out on it if they keep treating us like nothing more than just a free parking lot, free trash can, and a free-range place for vandalism.”

This is Answer Man Column No. 22.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin