BIDDEFORD — Biddeford residents will likely be faced with an unusual question when they step into the ballot booth in November: Should the city install parking meters downtown?
The question comes at a time when city officials say Biddeford needs to consider implementing a parking management plan to accommodate growth in the downtown and mill districts. That could include a new parking garage – the first in the city – and the installation of parking meters downtown.
That plan, though still conceptual, caught the attention of Paul Therrien and an informal group of 20 other residents, who successfully circulated a petition to force a citywide referendum on the issue.
The City Council last week tabled a vote to put the issue on the November ballot to clarify the question but is expected to take up the issue again this month. City officials say the council does not have the option of not sending the question to voters.
Parking in downtown Biddeford is now limited to two hours, but there is no charge to park on the street or in the city’s public parking lots.
Therrien, who helped collect 2,200 signatures on the petition, said the idea of parking meters downtown is not popular with anybody he talks to about the issue.
“We’ve heard a lot of, ‘Have their lost their minds?’ People could not wait to sign the petition,” Therrien said. “We’re struggling to get people to come to town now. Parking meters will discourage people.”
But Mayor Alan Casavant believes the question – “Shall the city of Biddeford install parking meters in the greater downtown Biddeford area?” – is premature and poorly worded. The City Council has yet to discuss in depth the idea of a parking garage and parking meters, but a parking study commissioned by the city outlines how both could work.
“No one ever went so far as to even talk about how these meters would work. It’s a concept,” Casavant said. “Because there is no information out there, this is really putting the cart before the horse. We haven’t even had a discussion about this.”
In 2012, the city commissioned a study on parking in the downtown and mill districts, which sit next to each other along the Saco River. While the downtown has struggled in recent decades to retain businesses, both that area and the city’s former textile mills are poised for redevelopment, according to city officials.
That redevelopment, which is already taking place in the 1 million square feet of mill space, leads to a need to address parking downtown, said Daniel Stevenson, the city’s economic development director. The parking study developed a conceptual plan for a roughly $12 million parking garage and parking meters, which would cost about $400,000 to install.
The parking study also showed a need for an overall parking management plan and for additional parking for some needs, such as downtown employees and residents, Stevenson said. About 80 percent of cars that parked downtown during the study period were there for less than two hours, but the main concern is people who live or work downtown and park for longer periods.
“A lot of people now do the two-hour shuffle,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said a parking garage would allow businesses and residents to lease spaces, leaving on-street parking spots open for people shopping and dining downtown. He said most people who go to a city expect to pay for parking and he doesn’t feel meters in Biddeford would deter people from visiting.
“There’s no such thing as free parking. There is a cost to pave it, stripe it and enforce it,” he said. “Right now those costs are borne by the city.”
According to the parking study, the parking meters alone could generate about $250,000 annually by the third year and $340,000 by the eighth year. That revenue could be used to offset the price of building a parking garage, which city officials said would be done without adding to property taxes.
Grady Sexton, owner of Grady’s Radio and Satellite TV at the corner of Main and Alfred streets, is skeptical of the idea of putting parking meters downtown, but sees the need for a parking garage if it is built in a spot to support easy access to downtown businesses.
“I’ve had no one say anything positive about the parking meters,” said Sexton, who is vice chairman of the Downtown Development Commission. “And I’ve yet to have anyone come up to me and say that’s a good idea.”
Sexton said he is also concerned about the outcome of the referendum because if residents vote in favor of parking meters, the city will have to install them.
Casavant, who points out parking meters were taken out of downtown about 25 years ago, feels the entire question about the parking meters “is really an attempt to stop a parking garage.”
“There’s a general fear that a parking garage will fall on taxpayers, even though that’s the furthest thing from my mind,” he said. “There is going to be a parking garage constructed, it’s just a matter of when. There’s no way the city can’t build one with a million square feet of mill space and a downtown that is beginning to grow.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: