CHATHAM — If you're finding it easier than usual to score a choice parking space on Main Street this summer, thank a downtown merchant.
A working group assembled to find ways to increase the number of available downtown parking spaces reports that it is making real progress. The group's leader, Becky Voelkel of the Chatham Merchants' Association, said downtown business owners have largely agreed to discourage their employees from parking on Main Street, leaving those spaces for visitors. The group is also awaiting final permission to install a number of signs that advertise “free downtown parking” in nearby lots.
“Our goal is to get those in in time for the busy season,” Voelkel said. Because Route 28 is a state roadway, MassHighway must issue permits before the signs can be erected.
On the recommendation of the working group, the town's DPW re-striped a number of parking spaces along Main Street, bringing them closer to crosswalks and creating eight new spaces.
“We did lose one spot to the drop-off spot” created by selectmen near the Orpheum theater, Voelkel noted.
Members of the Chatham Merchants' Association visited every store and restaurant in the downtown area, “and educated them on the importance of employee parking,” she said. Volunteers asked merchants to have their employees refrain from parking on Main Street, using off-street lots, including the community center and the Chatham Elementary School lots instead.
“All but two merchants were willing to sign our petition and join the program,” Voelkel said.
Given the fact that she's already received some calls and text messages reporting employees who are parking on the street, “people are doing a pretty good job of policing it themselves,” she said.
Negotiations have also been underway with one or two merchants who either regularly park a company vehicle in front of the store or who are using contractors for construction jobs to encourage them to free up those spaces, Voelkel added.
The working group has also recommended the installation of “free downtown parking” signs in strategic locations to divert some cars to lots at the community center or the elementary school. The westernmost signs on Route 28 will be near Del Mar restaurant, with additional signs at Queen Anne Road.
Selectman Amanda Love asked whether spaces could be created at the former water department building on Old Harbor Road, which is about a block from the rotary. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said staff would look at that possibility.
An earlier proposal would have included signs to divert some visitors to the town parking lot at Oyster Pond beach, but that idea was scrapped after a number of people raised concerns, Voelkel said.
Board member Seth Taylor agreed with the decision to avoid using the beach lot, given the number of small children present on beach days. He said he has similar concerns about the lot at the community center, where youth programs take place throughout the summer.
“I hope we will do everything we can to encourage people to be careful,” he said.
Taylor praised the working group for getting commitments from merchants to save spaces for customers. With more than 300 employees working downtown and fewer than 600 parking spaces, “that's going to be huge,” he said.
In December, the board voted 4-1 to impose a two-hour parking limit between June 15 and Sept. 15 on Main Street between the rotary and Shore Road. Merchants immediately rallied against the plan, saying it would deter people from coming to town to shop, to enjoy a meal or to see a movie. Selectmen responded by reversing the vote and endorsing an effort by the ad-hoc committee to come up with solutions on their own.