Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 12, 2012

Oak Hill Winery struggles with implications of limited parking

by Megan Graham
KT photo | Kelly Lafferty

CONVERSE — A Sunday typically would be busy for the Oak Hill Winery. Busy, relatively speaking, for the tiny town of about 1,200.

In these weeks before Christmas, the winery would host a steady stream of tasters and shoppers for the holiday season, pulling in half the year’s business in the last quarter of the year. People would sit at the little tables, sampling wine made from Midwestern grapes, or purchase gift baskets during a stop on Ind. 18.

But not this year.

On this sleepy, gray Sunday afternoon, the shop and its tables were empty.

Last month, after someone made a phone call to the Indiana Department of Transportation concerned that cars parked on either side of the highway impeded traffic, INDOT visited Converse and put “No Parking” signs on either side of Ind. 18, where customers had been parking for years. Owners Rick and Betty Jo Moulton were at work when it happened, and came home to the unpleasant surprise.

“I was absolutely stunned,” Rick said. “How dare they come through and do this without any conversation?”

For about 10 years, customers had been parking on both sides of the highway for the winery, a funeral home, the Bordermen Gym, where many local events are hosted, and the Circle K convenience store. After protestations from the businesses, INDOT approached the Converse Town Council, offering to let its members decide which side to allow parking again.

Unfortunately, coming to a decision wasn’t simple. The winery, on the north side of Ind. 18, rallied for north side parking on the highway. The Owen-Weilert-Duncan Funeral Home and Circle K asked for south side parking. Council President Joe Lenon said members weighed the sides and ultimately decided south side parking would benefit elderly visitors to the funeral home and render a safer road near the convenience store.

“I think it’s going to take some adjustment and getting used to,” Lenon said. “Whether that was the right side of the street or not, I don’t know if there was a right answer there. You could argue both ways.”

Jim Duncan, the owner of the funeral home, said the parking restriction would have destroyed his business. He said the home typically hosts one or two funerals a month.

“Parking is a premium, it’s an old business,” he said. “That would do us in.”  

Now the Moultons fear they face that very fate.

“We were down a big, big chunk in November,” Rick said. “We had our Black Friday promotion and didn’t do half the business that we expected to do. We have lost what I call drop-in business.”

And he believes his struggles could spread to other Converse businesses. Using credit card information of shoppers at the winery, he said he’s found that more than half of Oak Hill’s visitors are from noncontiguous counties. Thirty-five percent of visitors spent money elsewhere in the ZIP code.

Last month, he said, business dropped off about 20 percent.

“In the nine-and-a-half years we’ve been open, we’ve had a couple months where our sales dropped a few percent,” he said. “Never, ever have we had double-digit losses in a month before.”

In January, the Moultons will examine December sales and determine whether they need to close the winery or decide if they can feasibly move it.   

Gary Freeman, a town council member, said the decision was bound to have negative outcomes for whichever side they chose.  

“We have had parking there forever, and we haven’t really had a problem,” he said. “Of all the things you don’t want to do, you don’t want to hurt a business in a town of this size.”

Freeman believes the best decision for INDOT would have been to prohibit semitrailer parking outside the Circle K, which he said he believed was the cause of any problems that had occurred.

Lenon said the businesses will just need to encourage their customers to walk across the street. He hopes the consequences aren’t as dire as Moulton foresees.  

“From my viewpoint, we’re happy that parking is at least allowed on one side of the road,” Lenon said. “Everything changes. What we used to do 18 years ago, we can or can’t do now. Things change, and you just have to adapt to some of the changes.”

Megan Graham is the Kokomo Tribune business reporter. She can be reached by phone at 765-454-8570 or by email at megan.graham@kokomotribune.com.