By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The City Council has shelved a proposal to demolish the downtown parking garage and construct a new parking garage on the 1.8 acre lot to the north of City Hall, but Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2), the author and champion of the proposal, said he intends to pursue it.
The council has been wrestling with the future of the downtown parking garage since last fall when it was closed to addressed structural deficiencies.
"Putting any more money into that garage would be a mistake," Bownes told the council. Instead, he proposed building a three-story garage with space for 314 vehicles at a cost of between $4.7 million and $6.3 million. He explained that the cost of the project can be reduced by financing it in conjunction with the restoration of the Colonial Theatre, which includes investments from New Market Tax Credits, a federal program that offers incentives for private investors to fund projects in low-income communities.
Bownes's plan calls for the city to sell the lot to the Belknap Economic Development Council for a nominal sum. The BEDC would then construct the garage, funding two-thirds of the cost, or $4 million, with money borrowed from the city. The city would lease the facility back from BEDC for $200,000 a year, slightly more than the interest the city charged for its loan. The New Market Tax Credit program would require BEDC to own the garage for seven years, after which the city would purchase it for $4 million, or the principal of its original loan to BEDC.
At the same time, Bownes proposed charging a fee for all public parking spaces, both on the street in and in the garage in downtown, an area from Busy Corner to Beacon Street West and including the spaces on New Salem Street behind the railroad station. He projected metered parking to yield between $500,000 and $700,000 in annual revenue, which would defray a share of the cost of building and maintaining the new garage. "The revenue will be enough to drive this project through to the end," he said.
"We cannot do nothing," Bownes said. "We need downtown parking." Pointing to the reopening of the Colonial Theatre, he said that "to ask everyone to park in a dungeon is crazy." The existing garage, he continued, should be demolished and the property redeveloped.
"I appreciate your enthusiasm," said Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5), "and I don't disagree with you."
However, he expressed misgivings about foreclosing the prospect of commercial or residential development by building a parking garage on the riverfront lot. When Hamel seemed to favor repairing the existing garage, Bownes countered "You would confirm the blight of urban renewal."
Councilor Ava Doyle (Ward 1) questioned repairing the garage. "There's an old saying about putting lipstick on a pig," she said.
Speaking in support of Bownes, Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) said, "We have to go all in."
Councilor Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) said he was loathe to put money into the existing garage and added there is no harm in putting a garage next to City Hall because "No one will pay money to look at the river. There's no view there."
Several speakers also expressed enthusiasm for the proposal. "We need to make a decision to move forward with a new parking facility," said attorney Pat Wood, "and City Hall is really the only place it could go."
Former mayor Matt Lahey said "This could be the beginning of correcting a mistake made 50 years ago" and urged the council "to take down the garage and come up with another solution."
Lahey reminded the council that the city does not own the entire parking garage, but has an obligation to maintain most of it. In fact, 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.
However, Mayor Ed Engler disclosed that at a nonpublic meeting the council agreed to purchase the privately owned portion of the garage, consisting of 36 spaces on the second and third decks, for $1, effectively extinguishing its legal obligation to ensure access to the 36 spaces by maintaining the ramps.
"The choice," said Engler, "is not between spending $3 million to repair the parking garage or building a new garage for $6 million." He said that constructing a new garage is "premature," noting that no projects underway, particularly the restoration of the Colonial Theatre, are contingent on an expansion of downtown parking.
Engler also questioned the cost of the new garage, explaining that seven years of lease payments of $200,000 together with the $4 million to purchase the garage would amount to some $5 million. Moreover, he called Bownes's proposal for metered parking "an idea that needs to be vetted," adding that the revenue estimates, along with the cost of installing meters or kiosks and enforcing the parking regulations, must be more precise. "I think you've got an idea, but not a plan," he said.
When Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) suggested the council "continue the conversation," Bownes said he intended to refine his proposal and present it at the next meeting in two weeks. "There is risk and it's time to take some," he said. "I got a plan and I got a way to pay for it."
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