By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Support for blazing the second phase of the Winnipesaukee-Opechee-Winnisquam (WOW) Trail along its planned route was near unanimous among those who filled City Hall to the gills for a public hearing this week.
The City Council scheduled the hearing when the WOW Trail committee requested it eliminate the dedicated right-turn lane from New Salem Street to Main Street and a dozen parking spaces on New Salem Street.
Allan Beetle, president of the WOW Trail committee, opened the hearing by tracing the route from the Laconia Public Library to the Belmont town line. He explained that where New Salem Street parallels the railway line below its intersection with Pleasant Street, there is not enough space between the roadway and the track to accommodate both the 12 parking spaces the 10-foot-wide trail. He said that eliminating the dedicated right-turn lane from New Salem Street on to Main Street, is necessary to ensure a safe crossing of Main Street linking the first and second phases of the trail.
Beetle acknowledged that the city must address the long-term need for parking downtown, but insisted "the fate of 12 parking spaces will not make or break downtown Laconia.
Most agreed. Pat Wood of the Downtown Tax Increment Advisory Board, who at an earlier meeting noted the board was divided over the parking spaces, said that "the 12 spaces are important, but there are solutions."
Likewise, John Moriarty of the Main Street Initiative, who earlier said that 68 of 70 people he asked replied "under no circumstances should parking spaces be reduced," made no mention of his prior survey, but instead noted that less than a handful of two dozen speakers questioned the route of the trail and invited the crowd to express their support for the project with applause.
A number of downtown business owners, including Rueben Bassett of Burrito Me, David Kennedy of the Holy Grail, Ted Roy of the Water Street Cafe, Miles Chase of MC Cycle & Sport, and Penny Pitou of Penny Pitou Travel, all expressed support for the trail with no mention of the need for the parking spaces. In a letter to the mayor and council, Robert Curtis of the Bank of New Hampshire said the loss of the parking spaces would have "minimal impact on our employees and customers while the benefits from the trail would outweigh any adverse effect of removing the spaces.
Richard Mitchell, owner of Pitman's Freight Room, presented the strong dissent in the form of a letter read by Maureen Bieniarz-Pond. He explained that the trail will pass 12 feet from the front steps of the front door to his club as well as a consume a stretch of the railroad right-of-way where he has parked 40 cars. In contrast to other business owners, who said that the trail would boost the economy of downtown, Mitchell warned "This poorly placed trail will throttle it."
Conceding the impact on Pitman's Freight Room, Beetle suggested he negotiate arrangements with his neighbors, whose parking lots are empty after working hours. He was echoed by Craig Beane, who owns property across the street from the venue, who said he has never been approached by Mitchell, but would be willing to grant the use of 30 to 60 spaces as long as he is insured against liability.
The City Council is expected to address the request to eliminate the turn lane and parking spaces when it meets on Monday, May 23.
Beetle said that if work begins on the trail early in July, the project can be completed in October.
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