City may sell mall parking areas

7 years ago

Voters will weigh in on the issue Nov. 8

     CARIBOU, Maine — People of Caribou will vote whether or not the city should continue to own and maintain the downtown mall parking lots during the Nov. 8 election. While the question is in the form of a non-binding advisory referendum, councilors say they will likely base their decision on the outcome.

     Two downtown mall business owners say the city should continue to own the lots, as they are an integral aspect of city festivals such as Thursdays on Sweden and Heritage Day.

     F.A. Peabody CEO and President Chris Anderson believes city ownership attracts economic development to the area.

     “These parking lots are Caribou’s only real open space in downtown, and they were designed for the public,” said Anderson. “The town leadership should consider that issue as paramount to what they may think as fairness or cost savings. Privatizing the lots would put urban planning into question and there is no guarantee they would be open for public use once sold.”

     Brambleberry Market owner Deb Sutherland agrees that the lots should remain in the city’s hands.

     “I think they should just leave them as public lots,” said Sutherland. “It’s hard enough for my customers and I want them to be able to come in and park without having to worry about paying for their spot.”

     City Councilor Joan Theriault and Deputy Mayor David Martin may disagree on the issue, but both say the city will likely offer the lots to the business owners before selling to an outside buyer.

     Sutherland and Anderson are of the belief that this would attract less business to the area.

     “We’d have to consider buying them for our own protection,” Anderson said, “but I’d have to weigh the cost of the lot and maintenance fees. It doesn’t make for an attractive business proposition for my ownership, and I’m invested in the Caribou community. If an outside buyer does purchase the lots, I can’t imagine they’re going to make a big profit from daily parking charges without also charging for other community events. Everything circles back to the issue of community development.”

     “If building owners did team up and buy the lot, that would mean there would be no public parking other than for the businesses in this mall because they’re paying for what the city wanted to do, which is to charge each owner for the amount of lots they needed,” said Sutherland. “The city has sold lots to Sitel and cut people from departments, but have taxes ever gone down? The city needs these lots for public events, and I don’t think it would be very business friendly to sell them. It’s going to chase businesses out of town. The way I look at it, our city council should be bending over backwards to help our businesses in Caribou, not voting to sell the lots.”

     Martin favors the idea of selling the parking lots, and has several supporting arguments for the decision.

     “The number-one reason to sell the lots, for me, is that it’s a fairness issue,” Martin said. “We’re subsidizing the people who have businesses around that area, but we don’t do that for anyone on North and South Main street, Bennett Drive, and so forth.”

     “It would save us money on maintenance,” Martin continued. “The public works department is smaller than it used to be, so it would reduce their workload. Finally, the city would get a bit of income out of selling the parking lot.”

     As far as tax increases are concerned, Martin admits that they will not go down if the lot is sold.

     “Everything is going up except income,” Martin said. “Taxes have gone up for the last few years, but it’s not because of the city. We have maintained a percentage; the increases are because the county and the schools.”

     Martin adds that the city has made several cuts just to “stay afloat.”

     “We’ve cut a lot, and now we might have to cut people,” said Martin. “The library, for example, has about 80 percent of the budget it had years ago.”

     If the lot is sold, Martin believes the businesses should have the first option to buy.

     “We’ll give them the first option no matter what,” Martin said. “We tried to give them away a few years ago but nobody wanted them. Then Sitel came around and we sold them a couple lots.

     We don’t want to sell the lots to somebody from Bangor who will make a business out of charging people to park. We want the owners of the buildings to buy them.”

     When council previously discussed selling the lots, their vote was split three to three and the mayor was not present to break the tie. As a result, the city decided to let residents assist in the decision.

     “If the vote is as close as 52 to 48 percent, then I think it would be hard for us to make a decision,” Martin said. “I think I’d need votes of over 60 percent in one direction to make a decision. I’d hate to do anything if it’s really close.”

     Councilor Theriault remains opposed to selling the lots.

     “I think the lots cost the city about $20,000 to maintain,” Theriault said. “Selling would not provide a massive savings for the city in the long run.”

     Theriault believes the lots are essential for Caribou to continue holding community events such as Thursdays on Sweden.

     “There are so many things coming up on the horizon and we really need easily accessible public parking in the downtown area where the events are set to take place,” Theriault said. “The benefits of owning the lots far outweigh the maintenance costs. We just don’t know what would happen if we sold them to a third party.”

     Theriault says it was her idea to make the question non-binding, and that the decision resulted from a need to break city council’s tie from when they previously voted on the matter.

     “I suggested letting the people decide,” said Theriault. “It’s their lot, too, and the place is full almost every day. I thought the voters should help us decide what they would prefer to see.”

     With that said, Theriault urges local voters to support continued city ownership of the lots.

     “Once you’ve sold the lots, they’re gone.” Theriault said. “You can’t say ‘Oops, let’s have a do-over.’ We’ll lose control and we may regret it at some point down the road.”