A vehicle pulls into a parking space Thursday on Commercial Street in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — Some officials — including the leader of the financially struggling organization responsible for overseeing downtown parking — believe the need for the Augusta Parking District may have expired.

City officials are considering recommendations of a parking study that suggest significant changes downtown — and question if the parking district is even needed.

Suggestions coming out of the study include making the hundreds of off-street spots in parking district lots around downtown — including many requiring a permit — free, and adding meters to charge by the hour to park in prime Water Street spots that are now without charge.

The district was formed in 1947 by an act of the Maine Legislature, and played a pivotal role in creating, maintaining, regulating  and enforcing parking rules during downtown Augusta’s retail and office heydays.

The district raised enough revenue from permit sales and parking tickets to add parking lots in and around the downtown area, and employ parking enforcement workers, who walked the streets to make sure those who parked vehicles were following the rules.

Now, with downtown more focused on residential uses and restaurants and less need for daytime parking, revenues are down and the parking district is broke. It has been closed since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, neither selling parking permits nor enforcing parking regulations.

“As the chairman of the Augusta Parking District, I can say we’re running a very outdated and unsustainable business model,” said Tobias Parkhurst, chairman of the parking district for several years and owner of many downtown businesses and buildings.

“Our recommendation to the city is that we are not financially viable, and that we switch to a parking situation that would be less difficult to manage, go with (parking) meters and apply the best practices laid out by the consultant hired to study parking. At that point, we’d become sort of unnecessary.”

An Augusta Parking District sign in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Reaction on social media to the parking study’s recommendation to charge by the hour to park on Water Street, and bring parking meters back to the heart of the downtown was mostly skeptical.

But Parkhurst and Michael Hall, another parking district board member, said the current system is the opposite of how parking should be managed.

They said charging to park in the most-desirable spots, where merchants want their customers to be able to park, and making parking free elsewhere would help keep the most customer-friendly parking spots available for those willing to spend small amounts to park for an hour or two.

And they said the city could take over the simplified parking enforcement duties that would then be focused on metered spaces downtown.

Some downtown merchants said they were open to the idea of putting parking meters on Water Street.

“I think parking meters on Water Street are not necessarily a bad thing,” said Ehrin Simanski, who owns Lisa’s Legit Burritos with her husband, Jay. “It will make people think about where they’re going to park, and get state employees (and others who work downtown) who park on Water Street to park in the parking lots.

“We live in a city. It may be a small city, but it’s a city. People need to understand we’re growing, getting bigger, getting better, and with that comes change.”

Chef Eli Irland, owner of The Oak Table & Bar at 233 Water St., said most restaurant customers would not mind paying a small fee for the convenience of parking on Water Street while they dine. He agreed meters would help address the current problem of people, including downtown employees, parking in prime Water Street spots.

“I don’t think a dollar to get a good parking spot is really going to deter anybody” from dining downtown, Irland said.

It was telling, perhaps, that Irland, whose business has been in downtown Augusta for about two years, said he had neither heard of the Augusta Parking District nor knew anything about its roles. He said he has been parking at the Front Street parking lot without a permit for those two years and has never received a ticket.

An Augusta Parking District sign in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

At an Augusta City Council Meeting on Nov. 12, City Manager William Bridgeo raised the idea of getting rid of the parking district. He said the parking district appeared to be headed toward financial insolvency, and the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted many state offices to shut down and several businesses to close temporarily or reduce their hours, was accelerating the parking district’s demise.

Bridgeo added the city has taken over the role of maintaining the district’s parking lots.

“The trustees (of the district) and city staff have recognized that as currently structured, the district is really no longer a viable entity,” Bridgeo told city councilors. “It has  been quite a while now the district has been unable to raise the revenues to sustain itself.

“I think we’re probably looking at, if you agree, going to our legislative delegation in the spring to go to the Legislature for a private and special act that would abolish the district. We’d turn over enforcement responsibilities to the Police Department.”

Legislative action is needed because the district was chartered by the Legislature at a time when Maine had many quasi-municipal districts that oversaw services, including parking, sewer and water.

Before they were laid off when the COVID-19 pandemic struck earlier this year, the district’s few workers, including parking enforcement workers, were hired by the city. The district then reimbursed the city for their pay, when it could.

Heather Pouliot, president of the Augusta Downtown Alliance and an at-large city councilor, said she needed to talk with others to get a better idea for how downtown parking should be operated. She said times have changed and there are new ways of enforcing parking regulations, which work better than the district’s old permitting system.

Pouliot said she was open to installing parking meters, but said before this is done, the city should work out details of the plan and share them publicly.

She said the downtown alliance has not taken an official position on the parking district or parking meters.

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said she had a hard time envisioning 80 or so parking meters, one for each spot, on Water Street. She suggested using newer technology, such as one meter that takes cash or cards for several parking spaces.

Parkhurst and Pouliot said there must be some form of parking enforcement downtown, especially after the pandemic, when business and other activities presumably return to normal.

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