LACONIA — When the City Council weighs the future of the downtown parking garage at its meeting on Monday, Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) will instead propose that the city abandon the facility and construct a three-story covered parking garage on the municipal parking lot on Beacon Street East.
The proposal promises to spark a lively debate and close vote among the councilors, some of whom question the feasibility of financing the project and foreclosing commercial and residential development on riverfront property.
The council has been wrestling with the future of the downtown parking garage since last fall when it was closed to addressed structural deficiencies. City Manager Scott Meyers has recommended borrowing $3 million for repairs and improvements to the facility that are expected to extend its useful life for another 25 or 30 years.
Bownes said yesterday that a new garage would provide spaces for 314 vehicles, 128 on the ground floor and 93 on each of the upper decks, which amounts to 158 more spaces than the lot currently holds. With the abandonment of the 261 spaces in the downtown parking garage, there would be a net loss of 103 parking spaces. In addition, Bownes said that solar panels mounted on the roof of the garage would generate sufficient power to service City Hall and the Colonial Theater as well as the garage itself.
Bownes projected the cost of constructing the garage at between $4.7 million and $6.3 million, with the lower estimate based on a cost of $15,000 per space and the higher estimate based on a cost of $20,000 a space. The city of Dover recently built a downtown parking garage at a cost of about $30,000 per space.
Bownes said that the cost of the project can be reduced by funding it in conjunction with the financing of the renovation and restoration of the Colonial Theater, which includes investments from New Markets Tax Credits, a federal program that provides incentives for private investments in low-come communities. He explained that the city would sell the undeveloped parking lot to the Belkap Economic Development Council for a nominal amount, and then BEDC would fund construction of the new garage in part with money borrowed from the city. The city would lease the facility back from BEDC for $200,000 a year, an amount slightly higher than the interest the city was charging BEDC in the first place.
At the same time, Bownes proposes charging a fee for all public parking spaces, both on the street and in the garage, in a downtown area stretching from the junction of Church Street and Union Avenue — Busy Corner — to Beacon Street West and including the spaces on New Salem Street behind the railroad station. Depending on the fee schedule, he projects metering downtown parking to generate between $500,000 and $700,000 in annual revenue to defray a share of the cost of constructing and maintaining the new garage.
"This proposal sends a message that the city is willing to invest in the future of downtown Laconia and engage in genuine public-private partnerships, Bownes said.
Mayor Ed Engler said that New Markets tax credit investment would fund only one third of the construction costs, leaving the city to bear the remaining two-thirds, which could amount to $4 million. The city would bear the cost of servicing a $4 million borrowing to construct the garage, money that will be out on loan to BEDC. The New Markets Tax Credit program requires the Belknap Economic Development Council to own the facility for seven years, at which time the city would purchase it for $4 million, reflecting the principal of the original borrowing.
Engler also questioned whether a parking garage, alone, represented the highest and best use of the 1.8 acre lot bordering the Winnipesaukee River, which some believe would be better suited to commercial and/or residential development.