Damariscotta Town Manager Matt Lutkus reviews funding options for repairs and upgrades to the municipal parking lot during a Nov. 21 meeting at Great Salt Bay Community School. (J.W. Oliver photo)
By J.W. Oliver
Ideas for how to fund repairs to the back parking lot in Damariscotta include an adopt-a-parking-space program and a new tax on downtown property owners.
The topic of how to pay for the repairs was the focus of a second community meeting about the lot Nov. 21.
Some favor a private fundraising campaign, some want to ask other towns to contribute, and at least one person wants the town to consider the sale of naming rights to the property.
Damariscotta property tax revenue and a pay-to-park system also remain on the table, and the town will continue to pursue grants for the work.
Damariscotta Town Manager Matt Lutkus reviewed the available options. Lutkus explained options that had not been widely discussed, including a special assessment district and the lease of parking space to businesses that lack sufficient parking.
A special assessment district would impose a tax “above and beyond the property tax” on property owners in the district, the downtown in this case.
The lease concept “is similar to what Freeport uses now,” Lutkus said. The town of Freeport and the Freeport Historical Society own many of the parking lots in Freeport and lease the space to businesses.
As for fundraising, “The town cannot ask for money,” Lutkus said. “We’re prohibited by state law from doing that, but a community organization could be set up to do that.”
Lutkus reviewed quotes for a loan, in case the town opts to finance the work.
For a $1 million, 10-year bond at 3.05 percent interest, the town would have an annual payment of $117,530 and would pay a total of $175,298 in interest. For a 15-year bond at 3.91 percent interest, the town would make annual payments of $89,376 and pay a total of $340,640 in interest.
A $100,000 bond payment would add approximately $0.30 to the property tax rate or $30 to the tax bill of someone who owns a $100,000 property, Lutkus said.
There was little dialogue about a pay-to-park system. A June report that recommended such a system for Damariscotta sparked the meetings about the lot.
R.H. Reny Inc. Vice President Bob Reny was the only person in the crowd to address the report and pay-to-park in detail.
“We have to find a way to pay for (the lot),” Bob Reny said. A capital campaign, a request for help to area towns and a fee to connect to the new sewer are options, he said.
Pay-to-park would be “a great big roadblock to everybody that comes into this area, and we’re going to end up ruining something that we have here,” he said. Pay-to-park would be bad for Damariscotta even if, in one possible scenario, only summer visitors would pay.
“We’re lucky that these … summer visitors come here, because without them, we wouldn’t really have a chance to make our businesses work,” Bob Reny said. “We’re not that profitable. We’re not that great.”
“Every town we have a store in, except Portland, has free parking,” he said.
The family department store chain opened stores in Portland and Topsham in 2011. The Topsham store “does twice as much business as Portland does,” he said, despite Topsham’s relatively small population.
“Why don’t they go to downtown Portland? Because they have to pay for parking.” he said. “People spend $20 in gas to not pay for parking.”
Bob Reny’s brother, R.H. Reny Inc. President John Reny, said the town needs to build a capital improvement fund for the work. “We’ve known this is an issue for quite a while … you start socking away some money because someday you’re going to have to do something about it,” Reny said.
The town does have a capital reserve account for the lot, Lutkus said, but with a balance of $40,000, “it has a ways to grow before we can make an impact on some of the items we’re talking about here.”
Shari Sage, a member of the Damariscotta Planning Board and the Damariscotta Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, suggested both the “adopt-a-parking-space” option and the sale of naming rights to a corporation or nonprofit.
Barnaby Porter, a member of the Damariscotta Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, advocated for a private fundraising campaign.
He cited the campaigns to build the Skidompha Public Library and restore the steeple of the Damariscotta Baptist Church among several examples of successful local efforts.
“The money is there,” Porter said. “People care. They love this place.”
The campaign should set its sights on more than just new pavement and sewer pipes.
“I don’t think we should think small,” Porter said. “We should think big, see it as an opportunity.”
Porter favors public restrooms, a waterfront boardwalk and a wharf over Misery Gulch among possible improvements to the lot. He also suggested an opportunity to convert utility poles, which some consider an eyesore, into an attraction.
“You can disguise power poles to look like saguaro cacti, palm trees, all kinds of things,” Porter said.
“We have a rather interesting, even spectacular, shipbuilding history here in Damariscotta,” he said. “Already (the poles) look kind of like ships’ masts.”
With yardarms on the poles and kiosks at the bottom with information about the shipbuilding history of the town, “it could be a very interesting little historical display and a lot more than just a parking lot,” Porter said.
The project would need a name, as “parking lot fund” would do little to inspire people. “I think something like ‘Historic Waterfront Park Enhancement Project,'” Porter said.
The alternatives to fundraising all “seem to me like penalties on certain people,” Porter said. “Damariscotta is a very friendly place. I think it would be disastrous to do something like that.”
“I think we should really lean on the people who love this place,” Porter said. “We’ve done it before, we can do it again.”