LEWISTON — Even if the signs say “Free Parking,” someone is paying for it. 

In response to complaints from customers earlier this month who said they were forced to pay for parking, The Dolard and Priscilla Gendron Franco Center will raise rental rates in order to keep its parking free. 

For people who park there, it is a big deal. 

The performance arts and banquet center on Cedar Street has in recent years worked under a verbal agreement with the owners of the adjacent Roy Continental Mill to use the parking lot for event parking in exchange for a monthly fee. But over the past two months, a parking attendant working for the mill appeared during some events, charging $5 cash to park at the lot. 

If they do not have cash, guests are told to go to a nearby ATM or to park in one of the city’s public garages, angering some people. 

Mill owner Sonia Tracy said Thursday the mill has provided free parking for the Franco Center for about 17 years, but has been trying to offset money lost to rising expenses with no source of income. The mill is currently for sale and has no tenants. 

Franco Center Executive Director Mitch Thomas said last week that after hearing some complaints, he came to an agreement with the mill’s owners to increase the Franco Center’s lease payment.

He said while that will guarantee free and convenient parking for guests going forward, the Franco Center will have to raise its rental rates accordingly. 

Tracy confirmed that a new fee had been agreed upon, but said there is no lease agreement in writing yet. She said the mill was “more than happy” to provide the parking for free in the past, but that circumstances unfortunately changed. 

Thomas said the Franco Center may have taken the free parking for granted over the years. They began paying a monthly rate of $1,000 to the mill a little more than a year ago, which went up to $1,500 in 2017. The new agreement is for $3,000 a month, he said. 

“We’re going to have to go up on all of our ticket and rental fees,” he said. “We don’t call it free parking, because we know full well someone is paying for it.”

He said the mill’s parking attendant began working events in February, but that many people no longer carry cash on them anymore and that it surprised people. But he described it as “not controversial,” and compared it to the city raising rates at its public garages. 

Tracy said Thursday that the person collecting money for parking often faced “backlash” from Franco Center guests. 

Both Thomas and Tracy said they have had a good relationship over the years. They also shared the sentiment that in cities outside of southern Maine there is more of an expectation — perhaps unfairly — for free parking . 

“It’s convenient, on-site parking,” Thomas said, defending the Continental Mill. “You pay to park and be in your seat in 30 seconds. Anyone who owns property has a right to charge rent.” 

At the same time, the city is currently in the process of studying its public parking, including options for expanding metered parking downtown and updating to kiosk meters that accept credit cards. One of the reasons cited was that fewer and fewer people are carrying loose change. But the study may also recommend raising meter rates at many locations considered “prime.” 

Thomas said in response to having to raise rates, the Franco Center is planning to make exceptions during many of its civic events. He said it will offer schools and other city groups the chance to have booster groups or parent organizations take over the parking lot for fundraisers. 

“We’ll be able to make it a positive thing for the community,” he said. 

Thomas said the center’s rental rates will rise on a sliding scale, depending on the size of the event.

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Event parking for the Franco Center is next door at the Roy Continental Mill. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)


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