Merchants worry over possible parking loss


Nautical Mile business owners say they are outraged to learn that the sale of a public parking lot, at Ocean and Hamilton streets on the Mile, might still be a possibility.

At the August village board of trustees meeting, Mayor Robert Kennedy said that development of the lot by a private company would add a property to the village’s tax rolls. Although there currently are no developers or buyers interested in it, business owners still worry about losing the parking lot — and the potential effect of the sale on their businesses.

“Of course it will be on the tax rolls and it will bring in tax revenue,” Mike Kaland, owner of the Seahorse Gift Shop, said.  “But [the mayor’s] going to lose a lot when everyone goes out of business here.” Kaland added that many storefronts are already vacant.

Without parking, the business owners said, people will stop coming to the Nautical Mile.

A diverse group of Nautical Mile merchants met on Monday to discuss their concerns. They said they were willing to sit down with Kennedy and are waiting for him to attend a Freeport Chamber of Commerce or Nautical Mile Merchants Association meeting to discuss the parking issue further.

When contacted, village officials declined to comment until Kennedy returns from a conference next week. The Herald is scheduled to interview him and will report further in the Sept. 21-27 issue.

Parking is not a new issue in the Nautical Mile, merchants said. There has been a continual tug-of-war between village officials and business owners dating back to 1995.

“This parking lot provides an equal access for all of us,” Ilona Jagnow, owner of Crow’s Nest Mini Golf, said. “People can go down to Tropics, EB Elliot’s, or they can stay in the main hub, where our businesses are viable and we have been granted variances to use that parking lot.”

In August, Kennedy said that two years ago he had secured $9 million in grants to help build a parking structure on the lot in question, but business owners who spoke with the Herald on Monday said they had never heard about grants for a parking structure, according to Jagnow, who is a chamber member.

“We were never given that option as a chamber,” she said.

Ivan Sayles, owner of the Rachel’s Waterside Grill and Nawlins restaurants, and the chamber president since April, said he believed chamber members would have supported a parking structure if they had known about the $9 million in grant money.

Al Grover, owner of Grover Realty, then chimed in. “Nine million to put in a multiple[-deck] parking [structure]? For nine million? Could you see us all saying we don’t want nine million? I’ve never heard of nine million.”

General Motors owned the parking lot in the mid-1990s. The property was later purchased by the Freeport Community Development Agency with Grover’s help. The CDA is an independent, public-benefit corporation. According to Grover, he helped acquire the property for $300,000. A public museum was planned at the site.

Freeport took over the property in 2016 after the CDA borrowed more than $1.5 million from the village, which the corporation could not repay, according to the village’s 2016 audit. It is unclear from village documents why the CDA borrowed the money. To settle the debt, it transferred ownership of the property to village last year.  Along with the property, the building that houses the environmental center run by the nonprofit organization Operation SPLASH (Stop Polluting Littering and Save Harbors) was included in the exchange. According to the village audit, Operation SPLASH pays no rent for use of the building.

Grover questioned the CDA’s debt to the village, saying he was unsure how it could be so large. He said he wanted to see an itemized list explaining the debt. He also said that parking meters were installed in the lot four years before the village took over the property. He questioned where the money generated by those meters went, noting that the village did not take over the lot until last year. He also said that revenue from the meters could have been used to offset at least some of the CDA’s debt.

The Herald Leader submitted a Freedom of Information request on Monday, seeking all documents regarding transfer of the parking lot from the CDA to the village, along with the minutes of public meetings about the transaction dating back to 2016.

Business owners said they cannot stop worrying about what the potential loss of parking spaces would do to the flow of traffic and visitors to the Nautical Mile. Some said the village would be responsible for the demise of the business district.

“This is the only working waterfront left, and I get so upset,” Kaland said. “There is no other place on Long Island like this. They want to sell that parking lot at the center of the mile. The heartbeat of the Nautical Mile is right there, and they want to sell it. That’s ruining it.”

Nautical Mile business owners said they are, in many ways, still reeling because of Hurricane Sandy, which nearly wiped out the business district. They said they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, including their own savings, to breathe life back into the Nautical Mile. Michael Verni, the owner of the Silver by the Sea gift shop, said he was uncertain whether he would open for business next summer, noting that he spent more than $200,000 to get his business up and running after Sandy.

“I would have never invested $200,000 after Sandy had I known they were going to take the parking away,” Verni said. “I would have been gone. This is a municipal parking lot. How dare they [take it] after we’ve tried to come back after Sandy? The only reason that I’ll be back next year is if my house doesn’t sell.”

The next village board of trustees meeting is scheduled for Sept. 23 at 6:30 p.m.