HOULTON, Maine — Michelle Williams said Monday that during certain times of the year she can understand why town officials want business owners and their employees to park in the large lots that surround Market Square.
“I can see it around Christmas and the Fourth of July when it is really busy,” she said. “But there are only eight cars down here today. It looks like a ghost town.”
Williams, who owns Shelley’s Cafe and Bakery, was reflecting on last week’s Town Council meeting, where Police Chief Joe McKenna updated councilors on the local parking situation about which he said he regularly gets complaints.
The chief told councilors that it was not shoppers who are taking up most of the limited parking spaces in downtown Market Square but rather the employees and employers who own and work at the stores in the historic district.
Some downtown business owners have complained about losing sales because shoppers have such a difficult time finding available parking spots near their stores.
Police stepped up parking patrols in July 2015, writing 37 parking tickets, and a downtown parking subcommittee that was formed in the summer to look into the issue continues to meet regularly.
Williams said Monday that she has one other employee working at her cafe and that employee parks in the lot behind the store. The cafe owner said she parks in front because she lives in an apartment nearby. She said she has never been ticketed.
Williams also said she believes it’s bad for business to have so few cars visible in Market Square.
“I don’t think people are going to want to shop here if they drive through and, like today, they see eight cars parked here,” she said. “Over Christmas, I had these two ladies who like to eat and linger longer than my usual customers. They looked out their window and their tires were getting marked, and they were furious. They said to me, ‘If I want to go and walk and browse and shop somewhere else I can’t, because I am going to get a ticket.’”
A short distance away at Beals Variety, co-owner Shelley Beals said she and her husband, Michael Beals, customarily take one vehicle to work, his pickup. She said that since her husband is a volunteer firefighter, he likes to park right out in front of the store so if he gets a call, he can immediately jump in the truck. The two of them are the only employees at the store.
During the council meeting, McKenna said that some residents had suggested raising the two-hour parking limit downtown to four hours, but he said he did not believe that would work.
“I think that is a good idea,” said Shelley Beals. “Our customers have told us that after they shop with us, they like to go to Shelley’s Cafe, and they get to talking and they lose track of time. Sometimes, they have gotten ticketed.”
Andrea Stewart of Houlton was shopping in downtown Houlton on Monday, something she said she only does “once every two or three months.”
She said she had heard about the parking issue but did not think that there was a problem to begin with.
“I have never come down here and not found a place to park,” she said. “I think that some people just don’t want to walk.”
Jason Mitchell, another Houlton resident, said he believed that the issue was “more of a seasonal and a generational thing.”
“I think that what we might be seeing is that it is busier down here certain times of the year, like during the summer and over the holidays,” he said. “And that we might need more parking spots for the elderly or more handicapped accessible parking. Maybe that is something we should look into.”