Survey says -- ding, ding, ding -- parking and businesses could use some improvement in Norwalk.
A consumer survey done in Norwalk cited dissatisfaction with parking and a lack of "good businesses" as the city's biggest problems. The survey suggests the city's most promising aspects are its looks, people and historic atmosphere.
A group of 20 students from a marketing class with Ashland University spent two months -- February and March -- approaching people in Norwalk. About 179 people agreed to interviews and answered questions about their consumer habits.
Slightly more than one-third of respondents said a lack of "good businesses" was the least pleasing element of the downtown area.
A lack of parking spaces was the second biggest annoyance identified, with 30 percent of the responses.
But when the results of the survey were presented to members of the Main Street Norwalk board Wednesday, members pointed out there are plenty of parking options in the city.
Signs along Main Street and U.S. 250 guide motorists to lots usually full of empty spaces. Business managers said they do not understand why the parking situation is such a common complaint.
Kristen Hovsepian, assistant professor of marketing with Ashland University who oversaw the project, thinks she knows the answer.
"There is a psychological distance," she said. "Because it's behind the stores, it's perceived as being much further away."
The city does not necessarily need more parking spaces -- it needs better advertisement of the existing parking lots, said Main Street Norwalk program manager Dave Gulden.
"Our design committee has that already in their plan of work this year -- to do signage for the whole district, and to point out where the parking is," he said.
Asked what kinds of businesses are in short supply in the uptown Norwalk historic district, 57 percent of survey respondents said restaurants, 25 percent said clothing stores, and about 6 percent each said boutiques and stores for younger generations.
Gulden said a store along the lines of Gamestop, a new-and-used video game chain, could transform the uptown area into a destination spot. A few boutiques -- gift shops and trinket stores -- wouldn't hurt either.
"I'm glad to hear that people are hungry for something more specialized -- more like a niche retailer, more of a specialty shop," Gulden said.
Gulden said he plans to aggressively recruit specialty retailers from other areas of the state, encouraging them to open stores in the Maple City.
There was more to learn from the study than just that. It also identified the public's view of the most positive aspects of the city.
Almost one-third of respondents said the aesthetics of the city were its greatest strength. And about one in five said the friendliness of the people is the city's best attribute.
"People who go downtown wish there were more events, as well as better parking, (but) they like the history and the cleanliness. Overall, people felt safe shopping downtown, even in the evenings, but they want a greater variety of stores," Hovespian said.
The city of Norwalk finished its revitalization of the streetscape in the late 1990s. Part of the interest in the survey was to learn if the aesthetic overhaul still played to the city's advantage.
"The survey results (show) it's clean, they like the historic lights and the ambiance," Gulden said.
Another survey could take place in the fall. By then, there could be many more parking signs hanging along the streets.