After years of discussing the need for more parking, the Biddeford City Council is preparing to decide which of three locations would be best for a 400-car parking garage city officials say is necessary to foster further economic development downtown.

Discussions about how to provide more parking downtown and in the mill district have popped up since 2012, when the City Council voted to buy the Maine Energy property for $6.65 million from parent company Casella Waste Systems.

The City Council will hold a workshop Tuesday to discuss the options for a parking garage as it prepares to choose a location. That decision will be the first significant step forward since the council in 2016 authorized a request for proposals for the location and design for a downtown parking garage.

Mayor Alan Casavant said the availability of parking has been a critical issue for the past three or four years and is the biggest obstacle for redevelopment of the downtown and mill district.

“I think everyone in the community wants to see the maximum utilization of the mills, they want to see all the storefronts filled, they want to the Maine Energy site developed,” Casavant said. “They also want stable taxes. In order to stabilize the tax rate, the best way to do it is by allowing for maximum development of the mill district.”

When city leaders first broached the idea of building a parking garage a short time after the Maine Energy purchase, some residents bristled at the idea, saying it was something private developers should pay for, not the city. Opponents even led a successful push for a referendum to ban parking meters downtown because meters had been mentioned by city officials as part of a parking management plan that would include a parking garage.

In the years since the purchase of the Maine Energy property, more than $100 million in new investment has been announced downtown. Those projects – including the Lofts at Saco Falls and the continued redevelopment of the sprawling Pepperell Mill Campus – have included new housing units, restaurants, stores and light manufacturing.

The former Maine Energy property – an 8.5-acre riverfront parcel on Lincoln Street – is championed by city officials as a prime development spot that could further propel the city’s revitalization. They’re confident Biddeford can attract a significant development project for the site, but say the city first needs to address the lack of downtown parking that has kept some employers away.

The city selected three possible sites for the parking garage: a parking lot on the Pepperell Mill Campus, a surface parking lot on Washington Street and the site of the former Maine Energy facility. The city owns the Washington Street lot and Maine Energy property, but the Pepperell site is privately owned. A garage at any of the locations would range from $10 million to $12 million and would be financed with bond revenue paid for with user fees and tax-increment finance district funds designated for downtown.

Norman Goldman, a principal for Desman Design Management, outlined the three locations and possible designs for the council during a meeting in late December.

The first location the council will consider is the parking lot between Washington and Federal streets and near the popular Palace Diner and George’s Sandwich Shop. The lot, which as 76 existing spaces, is smaller than the other possible sites and would require a seven-story garage to accommodate about 400 spaces. A seven-story garage would be nearly double the height of nearby buildings and taller than the clock tower on City Hall.

Goldman outlined several options available for a garage on the Maine Energy site, including the possibility of retail space on the ground level of the parking structure. That site would also allow the city to expand the garage to more than 600 spaces in the future.

Goldman said a parking garage would take up less than a third of the Maine Energy property, leaving room for development for other uses.

“If you want to prepare yourself for developing that area, it becomes an investment on your part to spur development because that will attract developers to the area,” he said.

The Pepperell Plaza site would allow for a parking garage accessible from both Saco Falls Way and York Street, but that property is privately owned. Construction could also be more complicated on that site because of the underground canals in the mill district.

John Whipple, a design architect with Whipple Callendar of Portland, suggested the council consider choosing a parking garage design that fits in with brick buildings in the mill district.

“I think what would be appropriate would be a facade with a rhythm that recalls the mill buildings, which have a lot of beauty,” he said.

Casavant believes the time has come for the City Council to take action on the issue and move forward with building the parking garage.

“If we hesitate, we’re denying ourselves economic possibilities. We can’t just sit on our hands and hope for someone to come in and build a garage,” he said. “There has to be some effort by the city to provide the stimulus to bring people in to invest in businesses in the downtown core.”

Councilor Marc Lessard, who has been a proponent of a parking garage because of the economic benefits to the city, said one reason to support moving forward with a parking garage soon is the amount of time it will take to get it up and running. If the council selects a location soon, construction could begin by the end of the year and a four-story garage would be complete within 11 to 12 months.

“If there’s interest in doing this and there’s interest in driving economic development and all of the benefits we’d potentially see out of all that, we’re still two years away from ribbon cutting and seeing the economic advantage,” Lessard said during a December council meeting. “Every day we waste, we’re burning daylight.”

In 2016, two companies decided not to move to the mill district because there was not enough parking available, city officials said at the time. One company would have brought more than 450 jobs, while the other had about 250, he said. Both had average salaries of $50,000 and each decided to locate elsewhere in southern Maine.

“I think (city councilors) all recognize the availability of parking in the downtown is a legitimate issue,” City Manager Jim Bennett said.

Bennett said he doesn’t know of any large employers who have decided against moving to Biddeford because of limited parking in the past four months, but said he has heard about businesses in the mill buildings that are concerned about parking for employees and customers.

“We have had businesses of a variety of sizes that have told (mill owners) they want don’t want to locate here or are considering going elsewhere,” he said.

Bennett anticipates the council will talk about the parking garage during at least two workshops. There will also be time for public input before final votes are made by the council.

The council also will need to develop a parking plan for the city that will include charging for use of city-owned lots. The city has no plans to install parking meters or charge for on-street parking.

“I think everything is going to happen pretty quickly even though it’s taken five years to get to this point,” Bennett said.