CONWAY — Staff at the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway say they dread paid parking possibly coming to town because they will have to spend their time chasing “squatters” out of their lot.
If the town chooses to institute paid parking in North Conway, it will contract with a vendor to provide kiosks and a pay-by-app system for the approximately 480 parking spaces along North Conway’s Main Street between Depot Street and River Road.
At $2 per hour, seven days a week, the town could raise $1 million per year, which would offset the public works budget, Public Works Director Andrew Smith told selectmen at their Nov. 22 meeting.
Several business owners told selectmen paid parking will drive customers away and inconvenience their employees. Selectmen are set to decide whether to pursue paid parking at their meeting next Tuesday,
The $240,0000 start-up cost of paid parking, if it survives the town meeting process, would be presented to residents at March deliberative session and voted on at the polls in April.
On Monday, Gibson Center Executive Director Marianne Jackson said of the plan, “It’s such a disincentive to people using it that they will try to find alternative places to park.
“We are in the village with our parking that is intended for our patrons with very limited mobility, to be able to park and walk into the dining room or into the activity room,” she said.
“If those spaces are taken, our people can’t get to congregate meals or exercise classes,” Jackson added.
Jackson was out of town when selectmen discussed the issue on Nov. 22. She asked Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michelle Cruz to mention mobility issues, and Cruz did.
The Gibson Center, says Jackson, has no way to monitor its parking lot. She says staff feels “very uncomfortable” about the notion of approaching strangers to tell them they can’t park in the lot. “As it is, people are free to park here and go across the street or go down the street. And occasionally they do,” said Jackson. “But it’s very comfortable and civil right now, and I can imagine it becoming contentious.”
Asked to respond to Jackson’s point, Town Manager John Eastman agreed that paid parking would likely drive some people to try to find free parking.
He said signs could be put up that say “Parking only for Gibson Center” or Berry Companies, and violators would be towed.
Jackson wondered who would monitor the lot and make sure the people who park at the Gibson Center actually go to the Gibson Center. She also asked what would happen if the wrong car was towed.
Jackson says she doesn’t want to make life any more complicated for seniors. She wants to make them feel welcome. She said phone apps can be difficult for seniors to use because of their diminished dexterity.
“Conway is part of our age-friendly community initiative,” said Jackson. “And putting in difficult-to-negotiate parking meters is definitely a barrier for elders to be able to negotiate.”
Speaking of apps, Zeb’s co-owner Peter Edwards fears that the existing cell towers may not be able to handle the additional burden the app would create.
Reached Monday, Andrew Testa of Verizon Corporate Communications said: “Generally speaking, these kinds of apps don’t typically demand a lot of data. We offer solid coverage in the area, and we plan to address increased demands on the network by adding 5G Ultra Wideband to our existing tower next year.
“We are planning a new tower in the area, but timing is too early to predict when that will be operational,” he said.
Tabatha McKay, area vice president/general manager for UScellular, told the Sun: “UScellular currently operates a cell tower in downtown North Conway and Cranmore Mountain. Both towers provide high-speed internet access, and we do not anticipate any capacity issues should the town choose to implement mobile parking.”
If selectmen move forward with paid parking, the municipal budget committee will take it up. Their next scheduled meeting is Dec. 14, and chairman Peter Donohoe expects paid parking would be among the items discussed if selectmen don’t kill it first.
Donohoe said the Nov. 22 presentation left him with many questions, particularly how private lot owners were supposed to manage their lots and if existing towers could really handle the strain.
“I am not sure we have a parking problem, so the fact that there is all this effort to find a solution makes me a little bit curious,” said Donohoe.
Wally Campbell of Valley Originals independent restaurant group believes the paid parking will be hard on the restaurants and retailers in the village and the signage and meters will detract from the aesthetic. “We are all frustrated,” said Campbell.
Meanwhile, paid parking has been in the city of Keene since 1947, Keene Director of Economic Development Medard Kopczynski said Keene still mostly relies on 1940s-era meters but does have a parking app and is thinking about contracting with second app service.
He said municipalities around the country use a variety of different apps. This means someone who likes to travel would have to have multiple apps on their phones. To be accommodating, he recommended that communities allow motorists to pay with a variety of apps.
“It can get a little complicated, but that’s kind of the way things are,” said Kopczynski. “I think Nashua has two, I think Manchester has three. I think Portsmouth has three.”
In Keene, on-street parking is 85 cents per hour and off-street parking is 35 cents per hour.
But the on-street parking rates are going to go to $1, and the off street parking lots will be going to 50 cents per hour. There are two parking garages in Keene.
Keene should make about $1 million in parking revenue this fiscal year, according to city budgeting paperwork.
There are 24/7 and day rates and free parking in some areas in Keene as well. Most of the money raised goes to public works but a third goes towards running the parking program. As of now, local business employees do not get a discount in Keene.
Kopczynski said Keene has discussed giving discounts to residents and local employees through the app system. He said the app system would also allow for escalating fees as time goes on. So for example, the spot could be valued at $1 per hour for the first couple hours and then escalate to $2 in the third hour and beyond.
“Parking is, quite frankly, paramount to some of the things you want to do with economic development and housing and things like that,” he said.
“What you’re trying to do is manage the availability of parking, the opportunity for parking,” he added. “If you’re just trying to make money on it, it’s a little bit more difficult to convince people it’s a good thing."