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More to Come: Somerville Merchants Fire Opening Salvo in Campaign Against Parking Rates

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Anthony Anniello, left and Bonnie Allen, the organizers of BOOM, preside at Monday night's meeting of downtown Somerville merchants. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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BOOM has Somerville's parking fees in its crosshairs. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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SOMERVILLE, NJ – Two dozen property owners and merchants who live and/or own businesses on Main Street intend to make some noise and have their voices heard regarding issues that they say are having a negative impact on their businesses.

Aptly-named BOOM -  an acronym for Business Owners on Main -  the group fired the first salvo last night, promising to organize a letter-writing campaign and circulate petitions seeking relief from the borough’s revised parking rates which they say iscourage retail traffic along Main Street.

State Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, (R-Somerset, Middlesex, Mercer, Hunterdon) whose district office is off Main Street, has agreed to present the petitions and letters to the Borough Council, according to one of the organizers.

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The merchants hope to get some temporary relief in time for the holiday shopping season, which begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

There are 1,100 parking meters and pay stations in the borough, according to Kevin Sluka, borough clerk.

Several merchants said that since the Borough Council approved the increase, the off-street parking lots are empty and Main Street has little foot traffic during the day; that has forced them to stay open later at night to take advantage of people who have come to town for dinner and afterwards, are looking to browse.

Several merchants also complained about the high-tech parking meters on Main Street, which accept credit cards, and the parking kiosks on the off-street parking lots, which they said are not user-friendly.

Future topics to be addressed include marketing, events and infrastructure, according to BOOM’s mission statement.

Merchants agreed Monday night to provide letters and petitions for customers to sign in their stores; they will also rely on social media to convey their frustrations and promote their agenda.

 “If I get 1,000 customers in here during the week, I’ll hear 10,000 complaints about parking, they each tell me 10 times,” said Anthony Anniello, owner of Alfonso’s Restaurant at 99-101 West Main St., who hosted BOOM’s inaugural meeting.

He and his father opened the business 40 years ago.

“You have a beautiful downtown with nobody walking around,” he added. “We cannot compete with a handicap like that,” he added, referring to the higher parking rates which merchants and residents have criticized since they were put into effect.

“We need traffic,” he added.

Ianniello enlisted Bateman to assist in the effort, saying the state senator has never supported the parking fee increases.

Monday night’s meeting was organized by Ianniello and Bonnie Allen, owner of Central Jersey Estate Sales and Liquidators, as well as Back Home Again at 93 W. Main St., a used furniture and decorator’s showcase.

“The parking fees need to be re-evaluated,” Allen said, “because it’s not working.” She has been in business in downtown Somerville for 25 years.

Allen said 160 letters were sent out to merchants and property owners inviting them to the meeting; of those, 20 were returned as undeliverable.

The letter sent to merchants and property owners reads:

“BOOM! - Business Owners On Main!

“A VOICE is needed in our Community! We need your input!  We are forming an Advocacy Group for Business & Property Owners, the Tax Payers for Somerville’s Down Town! We will focus on the issues that are currently affecting us; Parking, Infrastructure, Marketing & Events.

“The Group will discuss issues and solutions and those ideas will be bought forward to our community leaders. We plan to work side by side with the Borough Council, Downtown Somerville Alliance, Somerville Business & Professional Association and other organizations within our downtown to rectify current problems and find solutions that work for all.

“Our first and major focus will to be to address our empty parking lots & sidewalks during the day. The parking costs are too high; we need a parking fee structure that makes sense, especially for the Holidays.

“A lot of long term business & property owners like you have put years of commitment into this town. You are the core of the community!”

Rick St. Pierre, owner of Verve Restaurant, and RanD Pitts, owner of Evolve Clothing store, both Main Street businesses, attended the meeting; both are on the executive board of the Downtown Somerville Alliance, empowered by the Borough Council to market and promote the downtown, as well as impose a tax on Main Street property owners within the designated Special Improvement District to fund its efforts.

Beth Anne Macdonald, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance, had received a copy of the BOOM letter, and sent an e-mail to the DSA board:

“Good afternoon everyone,

“I am sharing a flyer with you that was brought to my attention this week. 

“A new business group is forming in town. As almost all of you are business and or property owners, this could provide a great opportunity for you to meet with fellow stakeholders as trustees of the DSA to better understand any concerns.

“Please let me know if you attend so that we can save room on the November agenda for your feedback.”

 The revised parking regulations, adopted earlier this year, extend the time limits placed on Main Street parking meters from two to three hours, and eliminate time restrictions from off-street parking meters in municipal parking lots 1,2,4,6 and 7.

The borough maintains seven parking lots; Parking lots 1 and 2, behind the Main Street shopping district stretching from Maple Street on the east to North Doughty Avenue on the west, includes 300 spaces, according to Sluka. Lot 7, located on E. High Street between North Bridge Street and Grove Street has 170 spaces.

Lots 3, 4 and 5 on the east side of the borough are much smaller. Lot 6 is primarily used for jurors who drive in from outside Somerville.

The revisions adopted earlier this year include:

·       Enforcement times Monday-Saturday that begin at 9 a.m. were extended three hours, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., meaning there will fewer hours to park for free;

·        The new enforcement times in Parking Lots 1, 2, 4 and 6 are Monday through Saturday 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Hourly rates increased from 25 to 75 cents an hour for Lots 1,2 and 6;

·        The rates for Lot 7 increased from 25 cents to 50 cents per hour. Sluka said efforts are being made to encourage merchants, employees and others who spend their day in Somerville to park in Lot 7, which will add up to significant savings over a month’s time. Enforcement times in Lot 7 are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m-8 p.m.;

·         The hourly rate for Lot 4 was increased to $1 per hour with a maximum parking time of 2 hours; that was later revised to 75 cents per hour. 

-         The limited-time penny meters in the vicinity of the Post Office on Division Street have been left untouched.

Mayor Brian Gallagher, who noted that parking rates had remained the same for 30 years before the new rates were imposed last October, said in February that the borough would continue to weigh changes.

“We will continue to identify issues and talk about other adjustments that may or may not be made,” Gallagher said. “We want to continue this dialogue.”

BOOM will have its next meeting Monday, Nov. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at Alfonso’s.

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