By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The City Council shelved a proposal to install parking meters on downtown streets, build a parking garage alongside City Hall and ultimately demolish the existing parking garage, preferring instead to undertake a study of the need for parking in the center of the city.
Even before discussion opened Monday evening, Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), the architect of the plan, withdrew the proposal to metered parking, which he described as "a work in progress" that "is not on the agenda tonight." With that, the council was left with the prospect of voting to construct a new three-story garage at a cost of between $4.7 million and $6.3 million and the ultimate demolition of the existing parking garage.
The public response was mixed. Despite Bownes's disclaimer, most favored replacing the parking garage with a new facility, but divided over the prospect of metered parking while several suggested conducting a study before making any decisions..
Dave Emond, director of operations at Lakes Region Community Services, said "The time is not right," and cautioned against "a rush to judgment," explaining that metered parking would place downtown businesses at a disadvantage with nearby competitors with free parking.
"We're not Boston. We're not Manchester," said Bob Soucy, who urged the council not to "nickel, dime and quarter people to death. We have to invite people to the city," he continued, "not turn them away."
Tom Barker, whose wife, Karen, described the parking garage as "a maximum security prison," agreed "It is quite a blot on our city." He said a new garage is a good idea and "I'm happy to pay the meters," but before doing anything downtown parking needs to be studied.
Breanna Henderson of Polished & Proper echoed Barker, calling for a study of the number of spaces and employees along with a projection of future needs for parking. She suggested that metered parking is "a generational issue," noting that younger people are "indifferent."
No one has spent more time counting parking spaces and canvassing public opinion downtown than John Moriarty of the the Main Street Initiative, who said he has found "overwhelming support for razing the parking garage. Likewise, he said that he favored construction of a new garage, even if the spaces were metered, "to get get rid of the garage." But, he said, "We actually do need to do a study," and endorsed a suggestion to spend $25,000 or $30,000 for a study.
Only Gail Ober of Lafayette Street expressed opposition to commissioning a parking study.
When the council turned to the issue, Bownes pressed his colleagues to authorize expenditures of up to $6 million to construct a new garage. He said that only after undertaking the restoration of the Colonial Theatre were the structural deficiencies of the parking garage discovered. After spending more than $100,000 on repairs, he said that any further investment in the facility would be "a big mistake."
Bownes said that by financing construction of a new garage in conjunction with the Colonial Theatre project the cost could be reduced by a third by drawing on New Market, which would include New Market Tax Credits, a federal program that provides incentives for private investments in low-come communities. He urged the council to proceed, claiming that if the project is delayed the New Market Tax Credits would be at risk and the construction costs would escalate.
"The landscape will only change for the worse," Bownes insisted. "This is our only option." Otherwise, he remarked, "we'll be forever stuck with that dungeon."
Councilors offered no support. Mayor Ed Engler said the debt service on a borrowing could not be carried without breaching the limit of $3.2 million in total annual principal and interest payments required to stay within the tax cap.
"That's why I proposed metered parking," Bownes replied.
Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4), who last week wrote a letter to the newspapers endorsing the project, withdrew her support, saying that she had "a lot of questions about the finances."
"Take a step back," said Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5). He said that a parking garage is not the highest and best use of the riverfront property next to City Hall, which he suggested was suited to commercial or residential development.
"We don't have a comprehensive plan," said Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3), who urged Bownes not to put the issue to a vote. Calling the proposal "premature," he cautioned against "pushing too hard, too fast" without a credible plan.
Engler stressed that the need for additional parking has yet to be demonstrated. He also reminded the council that although the council is in the process of acquiring the parking garage, the commercial spaces inseparably entwined with it remain privately owned. "We can't be talking about tearing down a building we don't own," he said.
Finally, Engler said that if the parking garage and the parking lot were replaced by a garage with 314 spaces as Bownes has proposed, there would be fewer parking spaces downtown.
When Hamel asked Bownes to withdraw his motion, he replied "No motion has been made."
With that the council agreed to convene a committee to study downtown parking. City Manager Scott Myers said $30,000 budgeted to fund service on a borrowing to repair the garage could be applied to the study.