LACONIA — "I don't think we have the option of doing nothing," said Mayor Ed Engler, speaking of the future of the downtown parking garage, "but I'm not sure what something is."
When the City Council addressed the issue this week, several city councilors appeared reluctant to make a significant investment in the garage, but a number of property owners and business operators urged the council not only to repair but also to improve the facility.
After a lengthy discussion, the council referred the issue to its Land and Buildings Committee, consisting of Councilors Bob Hamel (Ward 5), Henry Lipman (Ward 3) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6), with directions to obtain more detailed estimates of the cost of necessary repairs and potential improvements to the facility.
In September, the parking garage was closed when an inspection found that the structural steel supporting the ramps was weakened by corrosion from exposure to water and salt. Emergency repairs were made to open the garage to the second level, but the third level has remained closed. Dubois & King Inc. completed an assessment of the condition of the parking garage last month and estimates the cost of repairs required to ensure long-term use of the facility at $1.2 million.
City Manager Scott Myers explained that ownership of the garage is "a little bit unique." The ramps and north end of the second and third levels, including the northernmost stairwell, are owned by the city. The ground floor of the garage, except for the ramps, and the south end of the second and third levels, including the southernmost stairwell, along with seven commercial units on the ground level, are privately owned. In other words, the city is responsible for maintaining most of the garage, particularly the ramps to access the privately owned spaces on the second and third levels.
To complicate matters further, Downtown Crossing LLC, which owns the private portion of the facility, has entered a purchase-and-sales agreement to sell its interest to Genesis Behavioral Health, which expires at the end of this year. Furthermore, Maggie Pritchard, executive director of Genesis, advised the council that, along with the time constraint on the purchase-and-sales agreement, the $5.5 million bond issued by the New Hampshire Health and Educational Facilities Authority to fund the purchase and renovation of the property expires in May 2016.
Pritchard told the council that her agency would not acquire the property if the city fails to repair the garage and ensure its long-term use. "I'm not going to buy the building without you," she said.
Likewise, Daniel Disangro of Downtown Crossing LLC said, "Let's do something – and quickly. If you do nothing," he asked, "what happens to me?"
Both Pritchard and Disangro politely declined offers from city councilors to purchase the city's share of the garage for $1.
Engler cautioned Pritchard and Disangro not to expect the council to reach a decision before the end of the year and advised them that the process was likely to take between 90 and 120 days.
Myers told the councilors that because some sections of garage are obscured by fire suppression materials and cannot be inspected, but likely also require repair, he preferred to estimate the cost of repairs at $1.5 million. He said such repairs would extend the life of the ramps between 25 and 30 years, and the decks between 30 and 40 years. In addition, he expected annual maintenance costs to average about $10,000 over the life of the facility.
In addition, the private section of the garage is also in disrepair, though the damage is less extensive. Dubois & King Inc. provided Genesis with an assessment of the private section of the facility, but did not include an estimate of the cost of repairs.
Reading from the assessment of the garage, Hamel warned that "it's going to be a money pit" and called the estimate of $1.5 million for repairs "a low ball." He also reminded the council that for years residents have complained about the condition of the parking garage and many have refused to use it.
Likewise, Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) said that the city has spent nearly $500,000 repairing the garage in the last 10 years.
Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) questioned why the city should invest $1.5 million in repairing the garage, then provide free parking to Genesis. Pritchard replied that Genesis would require about 100 of the 228 spaces in the garage, 36 of which it would own and the remainder it would offer to lease from the city.
"We're not about to let it collapse," said Lipman, who suggested that the parking garage has a role to play in the economic development of downtown.
"Something has to be done, " agreed Councilor Ava Doyle (Ward 1). "We're can't let it crumble or get worse. We have to fix it."
They were echoed by Randy Eifert of the Beknap Economic Development Council, which in partnership with the city is in the process of renovating and reopening the Colonial Theatre. In an email to the mayor, Eifert stressed the availability of "adequate and quality parking" and encouraged the council to weigh "all options, including a new garage."
Downtown landlords and businessmen joined the chorus, with many stressing the importance of ensuring the presence of Genesis downtown. Pritchard said that the agency intends to house its administrative and clinical services in 26,000 square feet, most of which is currently leased to Grace Capital Church, and the rest is in two vacant units. Genesis would own and lease the space occupied by the Soda Shoppe, Tangerine Green, Wedbush Securities and Moods of Manhattan.
"I'm happy as long as she says she's not going to kick me out," said Mike Soucy of the Soda Shoppe. He went on to say that after rebuilding the Main Street Bridge and constructing the gateway plaza, the city should renovate the garage to extend the improvements up Main Street.
Bob Sawyer said that "the city has an obligation to maintain the garage" and urged the council to "move forward in in a somewhat timely fashion." He noted that a number of downtown businesses, including one of his tenants — the Empire Beauty School — rely on the garage, and the demand for parking will only grow with the reopening of the Colonial Theatre. He called the prospect of Genesis moving "an opportunity" that would bring between 70 and 100 professional people downtown five days a week. Sawyer suggested that the city consider adding an exterior staircase, glassed and lighted, and perhaps an elevator.
Attorney Pat Wood agreed.
"Look at this as an opportunity," he said. "Genesis is a long-term economic boost to downtown. We should move this as quickly as we can."
Closing the discussion, Engler said that along with the support for addressing the structural deficiencies of the garage he sensed that some favor "sprucing it up" and "improving the amenity," which of course would add to the cost of the project.