By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — With the adoption of the 2016-2017 municipal budget, the City Council settled the immediate future of the downtown parking garage, by witholding further funding for its repair.
The garage has been a topic of concern and controversy since the discovery of structural deficiencies which required the closure of the facility last September.
After spending more than $102,000 to undertake the repairs required to reopen the garage, the council was faced with what to do next. The problem was compounded by shared ownership of the complex. Three dozen spaces in the garage and the seven commercial beneath it are privately owned. The city owns the remainder of the garage and bears the responsibility of maintaining the ramps to ensure access to the privately owned spaces.
In February, the council authorized the expenditure of $150,000 for engineering and designing repairs and improvements to the garage. A month later when City Manager Scott Meyers prepared his budget he included a recommendation to borrow $3 million to fund the project, which included adding an elevator and exterior staircase to the garage.
Meanwhile, Downtown Crossing, LLC , the owner of the private portion of the facility, refused to pay its share of the cost of repairs, estimated at some $300,000.
Ultimately the council took two steps. First, it entered a purchase and sales agreement to purchase the private portion of the garage for $1. The transaction has yet to close. Mayor Ed Engler said that the purchase not only simplified the ownership of garage but also absolved the city of responsibility for ensuring access to the privately owned spaces on the second deck. "We will be answerable only to ourselves," he said. This week the council took the second step by stripping the $3 million borrowing from the budget, and applied the $30,000 designated for servicing the debt to a study of downtown parking.
Consequently, the top deck of the parking garage will remain closed while approximately 100 spaces on the second deck will continue to be available.
"There are no plans on the City Council's part to put any more money into the downtown parking garage," Engler said. "No one is studying anything. No one is suggesting or contemplating further investment in the garage. It is what it is."
Likewise, Engler emphasized there are no plans to demolish the parking garage. "We don't own the building and we have no plan to purchase it," he said, noting it is listed for sale for $1 million.
Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), who floated a plan to build a new parking garage and ultimately redevelop the site of existing garage, said he welcomes the prospect of studying the need for downtown parking. "I don't want to spend a penny on a parking garage we don't need," he said. However, at the same time he remarked, "If I had my druthers, I would drop a bomb on the place," referring to the garage.
Robert Sawyer, who as the owner of downtown property is concerned about ensuring parking for his tenants, described the course taken by the council as "reasonably prudent." He said there is adequate parking on the second level of the garage while cautioning that "the garage should not deteriorate to the point where it disadvantages the businesses downtown."
"The council took the appropriate course," said John Moriarty, a property owner and leader of the Main Street Initiative. He said that convening a parking committee "is an opportunity to consider a long-term solution to parking downtown."
Matt Lahey said "My No. 1 priority was not to invest another penny in that garage." He added that he was not convinced of the need to build a new garage, but, like Bownes, looks forward to ultimately acquiring the existing garage, demolishing the entire complex and redeveloping the site.
"There is no immediate need for a parking study," Lahey said, noting that two-hour spaces are generally open in the lot adjacent to City Hall. "And don't spend money on a consultant," he remarked. "We can figure this out for ourselves."
In fact, in 2010, when there was discussion of limiting the all-day parking spaces behind the railroad station to two hours, a parking committee was formed, which included both Sawyer and Moriarty from downtown along with representatives of the Laconia Clinic and Lakes Region Community Services.
Engler said that the membership of the committee should be expanded and that the committee should quantify the short-, medium- and long-term parking needs, suggest how to meet these needs and consider "whether we should change to a paid parking model in whole or in part." Above all, the mayor said that downtown parking is "not an urgent issue," despite some concerns raised by the prospect of reopening the Colonial Theatre, which he expected to increase demand for parking but at off-peak times.
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