By Greg Klein STAFF WRITER
---- — Cooperstown’s paid parking has gotten off to a rough start, but only three people showed up to comment about it on June 6 at a public forum on the issue, and two of those people wanted more paid parking.
The well-publicized forum was part of the village’s monthly streets and buildings committee meeting.
To Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz, it indicated that despite grumbling by opponents of paid parking, the new system is going to work for the village.
“I think what is interesting about public feedback is it shows that it is always about who you talk to,” said Katz, who was not at the meeting, which was led by trustee Cindy Falk. “The direct feedback or the secondhand feedback I have heard has been pretty positive. Most of the feedback I have gotten from residents or area residents has either been pretty positive or at least the people who were not positive about it, get that it is a process.”
Katz, however, admits the process has not been as smooth as he wanted. It has left both supporters and opponents of the new system frustrated. On Monday, Katz took the step of sending out a media release to address some of the concerns of local residents and business owners.
“Please bear with us through this start-up phase and help make paid parking work for the benefit of the village,” the release concluded.
When reached by phone later, Katz said he sent the release because he wanted to make sure that concerned residents of Cooperstown and neighboring towns and villages knew that the problems are being worked out, and free parking is still available for those who don’t want to pay to park on Main or Pioneer streets.
“I wanted to assure people we are on it,” he said. “We are walking the streets. We are in and out of businesses talking to the owners and customers. I am aware of it. The trustees are aware of it. The police are aware of it. When things have gone wrong, we are all in the loop, and we are all doing our best to respond to the problems.”
Katz said he also wanted to correct false information.
“I was looking at a website, and someone commented that if our intention was to make money off the tourists then we should just have paid parking during the summer and not the rest of the year,” he said. “The next person commenting said ‘that’s a great idea. Why didn’t our village officials think of that?’”
The new paid parking is seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. On weekends, it will extend until Oct. 31.
Katz’s response came after several letters to the editor in local papers and private, often second-hand, complaints about problems with the 13 pay-and-display machines that are now spread out along Main and Pioneer streets.
Among the list of early system failures:
On Memorial Day weekend, several machines initially failed and had to be rebooted.
All the machines had to be reprogrammed to accept payment in 15 minute increments after being mistakenly set to only accept payment for hour blocks. Instead of paying 50 cents for 15 minutes, the minimum payment allowed was $2 for an hour.
Vending partner Access Technology Integration, Inc. has been on site, “almost every day” according to Katz, during the first two weeks of operation to fix problems.
On June 6, not long after the public forum, the machines went out of service again. This time it turned out to be a system-wide problem with an ATI server and was not a Cooperstown-specific issue.
Some parking tickets have been issued while people were paying or trying to resolve broken machine questions.
“That’s kind of a standard problem,” Katz said. “If that happens, you can go down to the police department with your ticket and they will see if the times match up and they will rescind those tickets.”
A report that a machine took a person’s credit card and did not return it turned out to be a hoax, Katz said. Even that “problem” caused a rapid response from the village and ATI.
“We heard that someone lost their credit card and we were scrambling to get a key out to the machine,” he said. “When we finally did get the machine opened, it turned out there was no credit card.”
To Katz, even the responses to the glitches are illustrative of a village that he admits is divided on the paid parking issue.
“I believe if you are for paid parking, or neutral, if anyone is neutral at this point, then you understand there is a transition period,” he said. “If you are against paid parking, then everything is a nightmare.”
At the public forum, Helmut Michelitsch, owner of Metro Cleaners & Coin Laundries in the Doubleday Field parking lot, was the only person to speak out against the paid parking, but he said he raised the concerns of many people.
“I have not talked to one merchant that is happy with the program right now,” said Michelitsch. “The feeling is it alienates local customers and residents. They just have this thing about paid parking and because of it, they don’t want to come here.”
Vinnie Russo, owner of Mickey’s Place on Main Street, said that his problem with the paid parking is that it needs to be expanded more. He pointed to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario as a similar tourism site that has all-paid parking.
“They have basically the same layout at Niagara-on-the-Lake as we do here,” said Russo, who also owns a parking lot on Chestnut Street that competes with the village parking lot and spaces. “They have paid parking throughout their entire tourist district.”
“If we’re going to do this to make money for the village, then let’s do this right,” he continued. “Every spot in the (tourist area) should be paid parking.”
Although he is in favor of paid parking, Russo did have some criticisms and other suggestions to improve the program.
“Short term, the signs need to be improved. Someone needs to walk the street and take a look at it to make sure they all make sense,” he said. “It is confusing where you pay for which parking spaces. I am not sure why we need 15 minute parking. And the handicapped spaces need to be consistent. Right now, some are for 30 minutes, some are for 2 hours. I think that is very confusing to people.”
Russo said he also had a problem with overnight parking.
“I am also confused why we don’t have overnight parking in the (village) Chestnut Street lot,” he said. “We have to be honest; a lot of people live in apartments on Main Street. Right now, people park there during the day, but at night they have to move their cars to the (Doubleday) lot. Then they have to get up in the morning and move them back.”
“That lot (Chestnut Street) is the most underutilized piece of real estate in the village,” he continued. “You should just sell it to me. I will make something out of it.”
John Sansevere, a Chestnut Street resident, said he also was in favor of expanding paid parking.
“I think it is a good thing, but I don’t think we are doing enough of it. I would like to extend it up Chestnut Street and I would like to extend the hours,” he said.
“My feeling is if we use the money right for the village, then I don’t think the residents will complain about it,” he added.
Katz said the turnout at the public hearing showed that the opponents of paid parking are over-generalizing when they declare the paid parking will drive away business or that the initial problems with the system prove it needs to be shut down.
“There’s no uniform opinion in Cooperstown on anything,” he said. “To say no one will come because of paid parking … I am hesitant, less than two weeks in to make such an ironclad declaration. To say we should just shut it down because there have been initial problems … you can draw your own conclusions about why people would say that.”
In addition, Katz said that there have been plenty of spaces available on streets with free parking, such as on Lake, River, Elm, Fair and Chestnut streets.
“There’s free parking and all day parking available,” he said. “The idea that you can only park in the village now in paid parking is wrong. We have been monitoring it to see if there is a bulge in parking on those streets, but we have not seen it,” he said.
Village officials and even some business owners have been making an effort to get locals to buy $25 parking permits as a way to ensure that residents will still shop in Cooperstown. As of Monday, 563 parking permits had been sold, according to village clerk Teri Barown, raising $14,075. The permits allow up to two-hours of parking in paid parking spaces, excluding Doubleday Field, which has its own preexisting paid parking system.
Adding in revenue from the new meters and parking tickets would boost the village’s early revenue total to more than $20,000, according to Katz. This year’s parking money has been unofficially earmarked to fix Susquehanna Street.
“Paid parking can help the village finance long overdue infrastructure projects to fix streets in need of repair, replace ancient sewer and water lines and make Main Street a showplace for tourists and residents,” the media release said.