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A good place to State Fair park

This business of parking is traditional as the event itself

Dennis McDonald flags southbound traffic in front of his 84th Street home for potental State Fair visitors needing a secure parking spot on Aug. 4.

Dennis McDonald flags southbound traffic in front of his 84th Street home for potental State Fair visitors needing a secure parking spot on Aug. 4. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Aug. 3, 2012

West Allis - Sherrill Deleon's family has been parking cars during the Wisconsin State Fair for more than 65 years.

"I remember my father sitting out on the front lawn and parking cars for 25 cents a car," said Deleon, 71, of Waukesha.

The tradition started in 1945, when her family bought several lots in the 1500 block of South 84th Street. By the time the fair celebrated its centennial a few years later, her mother had gotten into the family business, too.

"We slept on the floor, and she would rent out our beds to the judges. And my dad would park cars. Back then it was pocket change," Sherrill said.

By the time Sherrill had kids, the parking money was enough to buy bedroom sets. Today, he runs the lot with her grandchildren, and the money just about covers the property taxes.

Properly parked

It's a tradition city officials have backed for decades.

They even made it official in 2010, passing an ordinance for residential and commercial parking specifically in the State Fair Park area - basically, north to the city limits, south to National Avenue, west to 92nd Street and east to 72nd Street.

"Normally, you can't park on unpaved surfaces in the city. You have to park on asphalt, concrete or a paved driveway. But during the fair, you can park on the grass, crushed stone, whatever you want basically," City Attorney Scott Post said.

No permits are required, and there are no limits on what people can charge.

"Whatever the market will bear," Post said.

In some areas - mostly lots directly across the street from the fair - that's as much as $20. But in the neighborhoods within walking distance of the carnival, cows and cream puffs, the price often hovers closer to $5.

"Towards the end of the fair we charge about $10. That's when people are really clamoring for parking," said Ralph Gajewski.

Veteran parkers

Gajewski, a disabled Vietnam-era Marine who has been parking cars at his rented lot near 84th and Orchard for nearly 10 years, can fit about eight cars on his property - five in the driveway, two or three more on the lawn - plus about 15 motorcycles.

"I'm out here till everybody leaves. For security. No one messes with the bikes. No one messes with the cars," Gajewski said.

Some people balk at turning over their keys, something Gajewski asks them to do so he can move cars, if necessary.

"It's a trust thing. I just tell 'em, 'You're guarded by an old Marine. How much safer can it be?' "

Across the street, regular customers have come to trust Dennis McDonald, a bank call center employee who takes vacation to park cars in his front yard.

"I've been doing this since I was probably 5 years old," he said. "My grandpa painted me my first sign for 25 cents a car."

McDonald lived on 88th Street back then and parked cars after hours in the old Dunkin' Donuts lot.

"I wasn't supposed to, but I was only 5 years old. I filled the lot, and I made enough to buy my school clothes for Woodrow Wilson Elementary."

He revived the tradition in 1999 when he bought his home, on the northwest corner lot at 84th and Orchard, and has been welcoming customers like Doug Stehr, 46, of West Allis, ever since.

The men didn't know each other before Stehr began parking his car with McDonald almost 15 years ago. Today, they great each other with fist bumps.

"I've paid with beer. I've paid with cash. Sometimes, he tells me, 'Don't worry about it. You don't have to pay at all.' I always pay. A lot of people take the money and go in the house. Not Dennis. I love parking here," Stehr said.

The family that parks together

Cori Bergeron loves it, too.

When she moved her from Florida, Bergeron said had never heard of parking cars in your front yard, let alone charging people for the privilege.

But it's an annual business for her mother-in-law, who started parking cars about 18 years ago. And, for the last 12 years, Bergeron has been glad to help with the makeshift lot in the 1400 block of S. 84th St.

This year, Bergeron's kids - Alex, 10, and Hannah, 5 - even get in on the act.

"Ice cold water!" Hannah shouted.

"We have lots of water," Alex said. "We sold 13 bottles of water today. We're hoping to set a record tomorrow."

Knowing her children are making memories - and, hopefully, learning something at the same time --makes it all worthwhile for Bergeron, even if it does mean taking down two fences to squeeze in 15 to 20 cars in the medium-sized yard.

"It's worth it. It's extra money. You usually get paid more than when you're working," Bergeron said. "It is a lot of work, though. We make signs. We get flags. Some people actually mark the parking spaces. We did that one year, but it was like 50 bucks to rent a chalk machine."

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