Meters could be installed downtown on Main Street and other streets if a plan to pay for a new city parking garage is approved. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
Plan for a new city garage would be financed by fees from downtown parking
By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Some 40 years after parking meters were removed from the streets of downtown Laconia in the wake of urban renewal, the City Council is weighing a proposal to turn back the clock by reintroducing metered parking in the center of the city.
When the council meets on Monday, it will again consider the proposal by Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) to construct a three-story parking garage on the 1.8-acre lot adjacent to City Hall on Beacon Street East. The construction, operation and maintenance of the facility, he proposes, would be financed in part with revenue from metered parking in the new garage as well as in an area defined by Busy Corner, Beacon Street East and Beacon Street West, and including the parking spaces on New Salem Street behind the railroad station.
The council has been wrestling with downtown parking since last fall when the garage was closed to address structural deficiencies. Repairs and improvements expected to extend the useful life of the facility for another 25 or 30 years are estimated to cost about $3 million. With the restoration of the Colonial Theatre underway, Bownes foresees rising demand for parking, but opposes investing in the existing garage, which he believes should be demolished to enable the lot where it stands to be redeveloped. Building a new parking garage and returning to metered parking are the first steps in the process.
Businesses have mixed reactions
A sampling of downtown business and property owners indicates that while there is concern about sufficient parking capacity, there is little enthusiasm for metered parking.
Mark Condodemetraky of GC Engineering was one who expressed unqualified support for Bownes's initiative.
"We'll get to a point where there is no parking downtown," he said. "That is the bigger issue to worry about right now. If it means some have to pay a nominal fee for parking," he continued, "that's better than having no parking at all."
Bob Sawyer of Sawyer's Jewelry and RASCO Leasing & Management Resources, who owns property on Main Street and Canal Street, said while he is inclined to favor building a new parking garage, he considers the introduction of metered parking "premature." He said there is renewed interest and investment in downtown Laconia and "we don't want to create another hurdle." He feared that parking fees would discourage visitors and burden employees, adding that he would bear the cost for his five employees, but suspected other employers would be less forthcoming. He acknowledged that metered parking appears to have had no adverse impact on commerce in cities like Concord, Keene and Portsmouth while suggesting "We're not there yet."
"I'm conflicted," said Kevin Sullivan of Weeks Commercial Real Estate, who manages a dozen downtown properties. "The timing is unfortunate." He said that downtown is beginning to recover from the deepest slump since he began selling shoes on Main Street in 1969. "Good things are happening," he said, then added, "I'm concerned. I'm afraid. I need to know a lot more than I do now."
Downtown retailers were divided. Karen West of Whittemore's Flowers doubted metered parking would diminish trade since her customers came and left quickly and most would not pay the fee. However, she said, it would impose a hardship on business owners and their employees who park for extended periods and would have to feed meters.
"That is just unfeasible for people who work downtown," she said.
At Greenlaw's Music, Pete Bissonette said that competing with online retailers is challenging enough without adding the burden of metered parking, which he said would handicap virtually every business on Main Street. Those who come to the store for music lessons and park for extended periods of time would be especially disadvantaged. He was also skeptical that metered parking would generate a steady revenue stream when accounting for the expenses of purchasing and operating the equipment and enforcing the parking ordinances. Like Sawyer, Bissonette said that Laconia does not draw the volume of vehicular and foot traffic of cities like Portsmouth and Concord, where metered parking has little impact on businesses.
Larry and Joan Frates of the Frates Creative Arts Center, which has operated downtown for many years but will be relocating, also said that parking fees would serve as deterrent to potential patrons of downtown businesses.
On the other hand, Miles Chase of MC Cycle & Sport said that metered parking would encourage business owners and employees to seek long-term parking, which would open spaces nearer businesses for customers. He said that most cities charge for parking and Laconia would not be unusual while the revenue from parking fees would benefit the city.
Melissa McCarthy of The Studio favored parking meters, which she said would distinguish Laconia as a city among small towns while supplementing municipal revenues. She added that metered parking should provide an option for daylong parking.
Kathy Hayes, the postmaster, said that Post Office has 50 employees, most of whom park in the municipal lot on Beacon Street East. She said that she was not aware of the proposal to introduce metered parking, but said that it would certainly have an impact on postal employees. Likewise, LRGHealthcare Healthlink and the Empire Beauty School, both on Main Street, also represent significant sources of demand for downtown parking.
Planning for parking
Of course, the effects of a metered parking system would depend on its structure, especially its pricing schedule, which has yet to be proposed. A primer published by the United States Department of Transportation, opens by noting pricing for parking allocates scarce resources, namely parking spaces, while the guidelines prepared by the American Institute of Architects prescribe an analysis of the supply and the demand for parking as the first step in preparing a parking plan.
Although no such analysis has been undertaken, John Moriarty of the Main Street Initiative estimates there are approximately 1,000 parking spaces in downtown Laconia. He has even counted the number of occupied spaces, finding the number of parked vehicles ranged from a low of 216 to a high of 603.
Parking can be priced at fixed or variable rates. With variable rates pricing can be set to encourage more frequent turnover of spaces, which works to advantage of retailers. Or prices can be set to escalate the longer a vehicle is parked, to vary from one location to another or with the time of day.
In place of meters at each parking space, Bownes has suggested installing kiosks, which accept payment by either credit card or cash, similar to those employed in Concord. Dave Florence, who manages parking in Concord, said that one kiosk typically serves 10 to 12 parking spaces. The motorists pays at the kiosk then places the receipt on the dashboard.
Florence said the kiosks cost between $8,500 and $9,000 apiece and bear monthly operating costs of $40 to $50. Credit card transactions carry a processing fee of 25 cents, he said, explaining if the space is priced at 25 cents per hour, there is no return to city. In Concord, parking is priced at 75 cents an hour on the street and 50 cents in the garages as an incentive to increase the turnover of spaces on the streets nearest the stores. In addition, there is the cost of enforcing the parking ordinances. Florence said that metered parking returns annual revenue of approximately $1 million in Concord, less the cost of parking enforcement.
Florence noted that the kiosks collect data, such as the frequency and duration specific parking spaces are vacant and occupied, that can indicate whether the parking plan is achieving its goals or requires adjustments.
Bownes said that his immediate priority is for the City Council to endorse his proposal to build a new parking garage. If he succeeds, the next step would be to develop the specific components of a metered parking program.
– Alana Persson contributed to this story.
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