By John Burton
RED BANK – Mayor Pasquale Menna said he’s had enough with the organization overseeing the borough’s business district, over discussions of the long-debated parking garage. But the organization’s head insists the mayor is mischaracterizing its positions.
Menna in an interview with The Two River Times this week expressed frustration with dealing with Red Bank RiverCenter, the not-for-profit management and advocacy organization for the borough’s commercial Special Improvement District. Menna said the governing body would be willing to “go it alone” with any plans to address the downtown’s chronic parking shortfall situation, if the business group were unwilling to participate.
“The time for hedging is over,” Menna said. “The time for moving is now.”
“He’s creating a problem that does not exist,” countered James Scavone, RiverCenter’s executive director, about any perceived conflict.
The issues that Menna has with the business group in part concerns discussions about RiverCenter’s proposed $40,000 contribution, which would cover half the cost of an engineering study for the White Street municipal parking lot, a borough-owned property that would be the location of any future parking garage/multitier deck. The borough government would pay the other $40,000 for the study.
Scavone has said his organization would like to see language included in the memorandum of understanding that would guarantee RiverCenter would be entitled to get its money back if garage construction plans don’t move forward in two years.
RiverCenter has long campaigned for a garage to address the downtown’s parking deficiency that has had business owners complaining for years that it puts them at a disadvantage in trying to attract customers and visitors to the area.
Scavone said at the Aug. 10 council meeting, “We’ve been down this road before,” with talks of a garage or other solutions eventually going nowhere.
Menna this week said emphatically that a guarantee would not be included in any agreement. And RiverCenter can “keep its $40,000.”
The mayor said borough officials may just move forward on their own with planning – without RiverCenter – if the organization kept to this and other positions that Menna said the organization held. That would mean the business group wouldn’t necessarily have a role in the process if RiverCenter continued to object. “I’m ready to tell them we’ll go it alone,” Menna said.
Scavone, however, maintained that the guarantee was not necessarily a deal breaker. “I’ve said publicly a few times, we just want an answer to be able to determine how we would proceed,” he said. “We’re not necessarily saying no if that provision is no.” And there hasn’t been any direct conversation with Menna or any other official on this matter recently, he added.
For Menna another sticking point is RiverCenter’s insistence the borough finance and be responsible for constructing any garage. “That is not acceptable to me,” he said. “That is an option the municipality should reserve for itself.”
Menna has always maintained any garage “has to make sense” for taxpayers. He has said the most practical option would be to strike a public/private partnership with a private sector developer who would build it with a possible commercial or residential component included to make it financially viable.
It would be a very difficult to convince primarily residential taxpayers – who live and vote here – to support bonding the millions of dollars it would take to build a garage, Menna has said on numerous occasions.
RiverCenter has advocated a publicly constructed project, but again Scavone stressed the organization was open to discussions about all options. “We’re definitely keeping an open mind.”
According to Scavone, meetings with parking experts have shown such public/private partnerships with private developers responsible for public parking facilities are very rare; most communities, like Morristown, wind up opting to construct and manage their own, he said.
“I thought they were business people. They can’t take a reasonable risk after 30 years?” Menna said of RiverCenter’s members and their lack of skin in the game (with the 30 years referencing the organization’s nearly three decades). “I guess not.”
Whatever direction the governing body may look to move on the parking issue, Scavone is convinced officials will need RiverCenter’s support to get it approved. He was also puzzled by the mayor’s tone. “I’m not sure why there seems to be a desire to drive a wedge between the business community and the residents at this point,” he wondered.
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