BAR HARBOR — Consultants from the firms hired by the town to explore the feasibility of building and operating a parking garage here faced a large group of concerned residents at an open house Monday.
In order to avoid tax increases to fund the project, the proposal includes instituting paid parking at the garage and some town parking lots, and meters for some downtown street parking.
Consultants from Desman Associates and Bermello Ajamil & Partners (B&A) presented information from their multi-phase study that has stretched over several years. The cost of all four phases of the study, split between the town and Ocean Properties, which owns part of the Backyard parking area behind the West Street Hotel that is the proposed site of the parking garage and would use some of the parking for its customers, was $128,000.
“I’m looking around this room at all of these faces, and the last time I saw this many hard chins, I was at Rushmore,” Andy Hill of Desman Associates said in his introduction. “I know this is an emotional topic. I know when we talk about parking, especially going from free to fee, it’s hard, and it’s charged. You’re going to have a lot more conversations about that tonight and with community leaders as you go forward.”
In breakout sessions, questions ranged from the technical to the philosophical. Some asked whether parking meters could be removed in the winter to ease snow removal.
Others were concerned that the proposed site is near where cruise ship passengers arrive, meaning businesses there already get more foot traffic than those in other sections of downtown.
Many wanted to know what happened to other options for parking projects, including other sites for a garage and “satellite” or “intercept” parking facilities from which visitors could shuttle into town.
“The report from our 2002 volunteer citizen committee talks a lot about [these options],” resident Donna Karlson said. “Where did they go?”
Some of those options were mentioned in the group’s Phase 3 report, completed about a year ago.
“I was paid to analyze the feasibility specific to this site. As far as the larger merits it brings to the community, that was outside the scope,” Hill said. He drew applause when he added, “potentially it would be cheaper to do satellite parking and shuttling. I’m happy to sit and talk about some of the pros and cons of that, but I wasn’t asked to delve into it.”
Resident Suze Foster shared a common, larger concern. “We’re building more and more parking spaces to come to a place that I don’t even feel like I recognize,” she said. “It’s so crazy, and it’s so unpleasant. I know you say people are going to come, but I want to represent the people who live here.
“I am not opposed to a garage, but when I hear parking meters and creating more parking, and that our need is going to be greater and greater – that upsets me, it worries me. How do you address [parking] without opening up the town more than we would want to? I’m not talking about no growth, but I am talking about addressing the concerns of the local people and still having Bar Harbor.”
The meeting began with a presentation to a packed council chambers by Ron Beard, resident and former University of Maine Cooperative Extension faculty member, who served as a facilitator of a process several years ago to discuss the proposed project.
“This effort came because a citizens’ group said we’d like to look at a parking garage. The council appointed a task force with a neutral facilitator to pull things together, and that group said, ‘We don’t have the expertise, you need to go out and ask for professional guidance.’” The town chose Desman and B&A following a request for qualifications, a process to find firms with the specific expertise needed.
Beard emphasized that the decision of whether or not to go forward with the project is still open. “The task force did not recommend that there be a parking garage, but they said if there’s a parking garage, we’ll have to at least answer these kinds of questions,” he said. “The question of if we want it is a question for the council, and you can influence that decision.”
Hill then presented a summary of the group’s findings related to parking demand and how to finance the construction and operation of a garage. Projected parking shortfalls, he said, are “based on occupancy on the street and how that impacts both operation of parking assets you have in place and perception of people coming into town of how difficult it is to find an available parking spot. This is critical in season to Bar Harbor because you are a tourist destination. Most of the folks who are coming into town are not familiar with town, and they’re not going to know where those last few empty spaces are.”
If charging for parking in the garage is to cover all the costs of construction and operation of it, he said, rates would be around $3.50/hr or $16/vehicle during the course of the season. Instead, the proposal includes charging for parking elsewhere in town as well.
“This would mean making the tough decision to walk away from a free parking environment and go into a fee-for-use parking environment,” he said. “There’s two arguments for this. One, you’re spreading the cost over a lot more spaces, so you can lower the cost per hour and cost per day. The other thing is that it makes trying to avoid the fee in one particular place a lot less attractive.”