BIDDEFORD – The City Council on Tuesday tabled a motion for a November referendum on building the city’s first municipal parking garage, but not before getting an earful from residents about the still-developing plan.
The City Council voted 7-2 to table a motion to include on the November ballot a question asking for approval for the parking garage, which officials say is needed to attract economic development.
Councilors Roch Angers and Melissa Bednarowski voted against the tabling motion.
Resident Paul Therrien asked the council to consider the referendum, saying the decision is a big one that should be made by the public.
City officials and local developers say it is difficult to attract large businesses into the mill district and downtown if parking is not available. With the closure of the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator, the city is poised for economic development, said Daniel Stevenson, the city’s economic development director.
The first phase of the parking garage project, with an estimated $12.6 million price tag, cannot move forward without City Council approval.
City officials also are still working to line up financing – a mix of tax increment financing, bonds and revenue from parking fees – to pay for the first phase of construction.
“If there was even a possibility the funding for the garage would go on the mil rate, the council would be against it,” Mayor Alan Casavant said.
City officials are still working to hammer out many details, including land acquisition. The proposed site of the garage at the corner of Main and York streets is owned by mill developer Doug Sanford, but councilors said the garage, if approved, would be built on city land.
Councilors largely spoke in favor of the parking garage, though several — including Angers and Bednarowski — said they would lean toward putting the decision to voters if the referendum question were properly worded.
Councilor Michael Swanton said putting the question on the ballot is a “huge mistake” because it ties the hands of city officials. Council President Rick Laverriere said councilors and city officials will be able to provide more details about the project to the public once negotiations are completed.
But most of the dozen residents who spoke questioned why the City Council should make the decision about a project of this size.
“I think when you spend (taxpayers’) money, you need their permission,” Therrien said. “To bypass us or keep us out of the loop on this very important issue just doesn’t taste good.”
Resident Katie Grose spoke in favor of the parking garage and applauded the City Council for being forward-thinking at a “time of tremendous change” for the city.
“The way to ensure my taxes don’t go up is to make sure there is economic development in downtown Biddeford,” she said.
Several residents also spoke against installing parking meters downtown, saying it would stop people from patronizing downtown businesses. City officials plan to use revenue from meters to help fund the parking garage.
“Putting meters on Main Street is suicide,” said resident Howard Hanson. “There’s nothing here that would really draw people, like a sports team or entertainment.”
A downtown parking study commissioned by the city showed there are 1,427 parking spaces in the downtown area, including 367 on-street spots. There are 276 public spaces available in parking lots, but the remaining 784 spots are reserved for private use.
Stevenson said more than half of the 505 to 550 parking spots built during the first phase of garage construction would be leased for commercial and residential use, potentially freeing up about 300 street and parking lot spots now used by people who work and live downtown.
That would allow more on-street spaces to be used by patrons who prefer to park near the businesses they are visiting, he said.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: