WATERVILLE — The city’s plan to enforce a two-hour parking limit Thursdays near the farmers market on The Concourse is stirring debate among merchants about downtown parking issues in general and whether the market should stay where it is or move to nearby Head of Falls.
Parking is especially tight on The Concourse on Thursdays when the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market sets up on the northeast corner of the large lot in the heart of downtown.
A group recently got together — City Manager Michael Roy, Councilor Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4, Waterville Main Street officials, police, farmers market representatives and some merchants — and devised the plan to enforce the two-hour limit on Thursdays to try to alleviate parking problems downtown.
At the end of this summer, they will assess the plan’s success. The farmers market season started in April and ends in November.
“We’ve been working on this, really, since February-March, trying to achieve a compromise or a solution,” Roy said. “We think this is worth a trial for this year to see if it works.”
Parking problems are compounded when people who work downtown park all day in front of businesses that need the spaces for their customers, merchants say.
Ken Vlodek, owner of Yardgoods Center on The Concourse, said it is important that people who shop and eat downtown can park near businesses.
“We want to make sure they can spend as much time as they want,” he said. “The enforcement of two-hour parking isn’t designed to affect customers and consumers. It’s to try to move employees out of The Concourse area. What’s happened at this point is that consumers are now conditioned not to shop on The Concourse Thursdays because they know how difficult it is to park.”
All-day parking is allowed daily in city-owned parking lots at Head of Falls and lower Front Street. People may park all day on The Concourse in special parking spots designated with stars, but anyone parking longer than two hours in two-hour spots on Thursdays is being issued police warnings. Beginning Thursday, May 29, they will be issued $10 tickets, according to Police Chief Joseph Massey.
Main Street and several side streets have signs designating two-hour parking, and the officer stationed at the farmers market on Thursdays also may ticket vehicles along Main Street, Massey said.
“Main Street is all two-hour parking, from Post Office Square to Spring and Water Streets,” he said.
While police try to enforce parking rules when they can, it is difficult because of staffing problems, according to Massey. “We can never do the level of parking enforcement that we would like to do,” he said Friday. “Today two officers are on and it’s just hard to take one of them out of service and say, âGo down on Main Street and check vehicles.'”
Roy said the city hand-delivered parking plan notices and maps to most businesses in and around The Concourse, while Waterville Main Street emailed the same to businesses and downtown offices.
The Concourse has about 200 starred spaces. As part of the new parking enforcement plan, 13 starred spaces in the area of The Villager restaurant will be moved to the lot near the Goodwill thrift store and two more will be added there, according to Public Works Director Mark Turner. The 18 starred spaces on which the farmers market operates, as well as 22 starred spaces in the lot just south of the farmers market and abutting Main Street, will remain where they are, Turner said.
MARKET IN THE MIDDLE
Many people say the farmers market is in a perfect location downtown — it is easily accessible and draws a lot of people to the city who then shop at businesses, eat in restaurants and visit the library.
“The market is in an ideal spot for both the market and the downtown merchants,” said Hanne Tierney, who manages the market and co-owns Cornerstone Farm in Palmyra with her husband, Dan. “It’s got to be a good thing, to fill a parking lot full of cars.”
Others argue that a better location for the market would be Head of Falls, which is on the Kennebec River and off Front Street, about three blocks away.
Faye Nicholson, co-executive director of the community group REM, said the riverfront’s underground utilities and beautiful view would benefit the market.
The Concourse is hot in the summer because it’s a giant paved parking lot, and having the market near the riverfront would be cooler, she said. REM is eager to help build a structure there, complete with tables, for market vendors, according to Nicholson. She disputes the argument that if the market moves to the waterfront, it will lose customers.
“I’m a million percent for moving the farmers market to Head of Falls, because it has built such a following that you could put it in the wildest places in the world and people would follow them,” she said.
But Jennifer Olsen, executive director of Waterville Main Street, the downtown advocacy group that oversees the farmers market, disagrees with the idea of moving the market. She believes that if the market were moved to Head of Falls, people would drive there, buy the market items they want, drive out and not patronize other downtown businesses.
Now, with the farmers market in the heart of downtown, people have easy access to fresh food and it helps the economy, Olsen said.
“For me, it’s almost an equity issue in that the folks who most need the healthiest foods should be able to access them on foot,” she said.
Even so, she’s open to exploring other possible locations for the farmers market, such as Castonguay Square, the park outside City Hall that’s just around the corner from Head of Falls. Olsen also cited Haines Park — a stage and seating area on The Concourse, near Barrels Community Market — as a possibility too.
Robert Sezak, owner of Re-Books on The Concourse, said he’d love to have the farmers market right next to his shop.
“If it goes to Head of Falls, it would be out of sight, out of mind, and it’ll basically kill it,” Sezak said.
“It draws people,” he added, “and the same people will come to my store or Ellen’s store,” referring to the nearby Children’s Book Cellar, owned by Ellen Richmond.
Nicholson said she has two bad knees and in the winter she fell several times while climbing over snowbanks to get to and from her office at The Center. In the summer, parking is at a premium when the farmers market arrives on Thursdays, and she has to walk a long distance.
Like Nicholson, Bonnie Bissonnette, who works at Maine Made & More in The Center, thinks the farmers market ought to move to Head of Falls.
“The minute the farmers market sets up, we lose those valuable spaces, especially with tourists here,” Bissonnette said.
Tierney, the market’s manager, has been involved with the farmers market since its inception eight years ago, when Waterville Main Street instituted it as part of downtown revitalization efforts. Tierney said visibility is critical to the success of a farmers market, and moving it to Head of Falls would not be a good idea.
She said the market averages 20 vendors a week who offer fresh produce, meat, organic milk and eggs, cheese, yogurt, seedlings, herbs, bread, ice cream, soap, balms, and other products. Vendors come from communities within an hour radius, including Oakland, Albion, Palmyra and Fairfield.
“We’re super-excited to work with the city and work with the merchants downtown,” she said.
Both Sezak and Richmond said downtown parking is a bigger problem than just on Thursdays when the farmers market is in session.
Many people who work downtown tend to park all day, both on The Concourse and on Main Street, in parking spaces that have a two-hour limit, they say.
“It’s a big issue, Sezak said. “There are people parking all day on Main Street close to the retail businesses, so people have to walk far to get to the restaurants. The people who work at the restaurants park in front of the restaurants. It’s self-defeating.”
He recalled that years ago, Cottle’s grocery store on The Concourse prohibited employees from parking near the store. If they did, they were fired, Sezak said.
“It worked. In fact, my (shop) lease says you have to park in other parking areas,” Sezak said. “Parking spaces are real estate and real estate has value so that, essentially, for every space you’re looking at a value of $300 a year minimum.”
Richmond, who is a member of the Waterville Main Street Board of Directors, said she is thrilled with the city’s new parking plan for Thursdays and says enforcement should occur more often.
Richmond said she often puts notes on people’s vehicles asking them to park in starred space if they plan to be there all day.
“If you want customers to come to your business, you leave them a space that’s convenient,” she said.
Like Sezak, Richmond also says moving the farmers market to Head of Falls would be a mistake.
“It has to stay downtown,” she said. “I see so many people in the summer — mothers with a couple of kids — go to the farmers market and then to Jorgensen’s Cafe. They spend time downtown when they go to the farmers market.”
But Vlodek, of Yardgoods, agrees with Nicholson that the farmers market would be better situated at Head of Falls. Years ago, people may not have traveled down to Head of Falls for the farmers market because it was not as popular then, he said.
“Today, it’s very popular,” Vlodek said.
Olsen, of the Main Street Program, says the objective of the parking plan is to try to accommodate all-day employees, customers who use two-hour parking spaces and those who want to stay downtown all day.
“We’re trying to do what’s best for everybody,” she said.
While the parking issue represents a challenge, it also suggests that Waterville is a popular place.
“This is a good emergency to have. Our downtown is getting busier and lots of people are coming downtown,” Olsen said. “How do we fit everyone — employees, farmers market, customers? Obviously, although some may be frustrated by the changes, they’re reflecting a more positive economic climate.”
The Concourse itself has more than 700 parking spaces. Merchants such as Richmond think the downtown has plenty of parking and that people just need to follow the rules for parking limits and be mindful that customers want to be close to the businesses for easy access.
Roy, Councilor Thomas and Public Works Director Turner said while people wanting long-term parking are encouraged to park at Head of Falls and in the Front Street lot, that idea is not heavily promoted and perhaps signs downtown directing people to those areas would help.
Before the Police Department moved from the basement of City Hall to Colby Street last year, many city employees parked at Head of Falls during the day; but the move opened up spaces between City Hall and the former Social Security building, so many of those employees park there now, Roy said.
He said he thinks that many people who prefer to park downtown rather than at Head of Falls or the Front Street lot do so because it is closer to where they want to go and more convenient, or they may be elderly or have mobility problems.
Bissonnette, of Maine Made & More, says she thinks the answer is to build a parking garage.
“A parking garage in Waterville — if I ever won a lot of money — I’d love to bring to Waterville, because we need more parking,” Bissonnette said.
Thomas said there has been discussion in the past of building a parking garage on city-owned property across from the Hathaway Creative Center on Water Street if the three Hathaway buildings become full. One building is fully occupied now.
Bissonnette said it’s difficult for downtown employees to find places to park now and the new rules will just add to the difficulty.
“It’s an issue, but I don’t know if the answer is to enforce two-hour parking in The Concourse,” she said. “There are only so many parking spaces, and there are so many of us.”