By MAUREEN L. CAWLEY
WILDWOOD – Parking has been an issue for Will LaForge since he bought the 50-year-old Windward Motel 19 years ago. The motel has 23 rooms and only 16 parking spots. LaForge attributes the shortage to changing times.
“Building codes then are not what they are now,” he said.
The lack of parking has never affected the success of his business, however. He was always able to lease spots on the Bennett Avenue lot – first from Wildwood’s Parking Authority and later from GWTIDA..
That changed in December, when motel owners were notified by GWTIDA that parking spots on the Bennett Avenue parking lot would no longer be available to lease for the season.
“There was an established practice in place with over 20 years of history,” LaForge said. Motel owners paid an annual fee and spots were reserved for their customers with color- coded concrete bumpers.
For the first 15 years, they rented spaces from the Wildwoods Parking Authority for $200 per spot, per season. That changed in 1999, when former Mayor Duane Sloan ceded the city’s parking lots to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) for 99 years as part of the Omnibus Agreement for the construction of the new convention center.
LaForge and other motel owners met with Sloan to discuss their concerns over the new agreement.
“We were told to take it on the chin,” LaForge said. “It was for the betterment of the Wildwoods.”
At that time, Carl Aspenberg was leasing an entire lot from the city for his customers at the Rio Motel at Rio Grande and Ocean avenues. Al Brannen leased 30 spaces for his customers at the Ocean Crest Lodge Motel on Bennett Avenue, and several other motels leased up to 80 additional spots from the parking authority. LaForge leased seven.
Sloan wrote a letter to NJSEA President Richard Wolfe requesting a “five-year window” for motel owners to make other parking arrangements.
On Feb. 18, 2000, he wrote, “None of the owners believe they have an inherent right to lease these parking spaces long term, however I believe it is good business and good public relations to work with these owners in order to eliminate what could potentially be a devastating situation for them.”
LaForge was told by GWTIDA that the reserved spots might not be available some day. The price went up to $500, but for five years, they had always been willing to negotiate a deal.
Al Brannen said his decision to demolish his motel and build condos was largely due the precariousness of his parking situation.
“We went back and forth for four or five years trying to get a longer lease,” he said. “We really didn’t want to tear our motel down but we had no choice.”
Aspenberg said the parking situation was a factor in his decision to sell the Rio, as well. It will be demolished this month and the 25-story Nouveau Wave hotel will be built in its place.
Brannen said he told GWTIDA he was basing his business decision on GWTIDA’s decision about leasing the lots.
“We said, if you are not leasing the spots past that date, fine. We are basing our business decision on your decision. If you lease the spots past that date, we’ll sue,” Brannen said. “We were not trying to hurt other motel owners.”
LaForge believes Brannen’s threat of litigation is the reason GWTIDA refused to stick with the status quo.
Motel owners brought their concerns to Mayor Ernie Troiano, hoping the city could intervene in the situation on their behalf.
“GWTIDA was willing to help if they could,” Troiano said, “but when threatened with a lawsuit they have to do what they have to do to keep the city out of a lawsuit.”
Motel owners met Troiano and GWTIDA Executive Director John Siciliano to try to work out a solution. Siciliano said that the 2002 lease agreement for parking was extended to 2004, but motel owners were told to make other arrangements for 2005.
“We are trying to work with them to help alleviate the problem,” Siciliano said.
GWTIDA has agreed to offer parking on a daily basis for no more that $20 a day based on a rate set in the morning. Customers could leave the lot and be readmitted within 24 hours by showing a receipt. This offer is open to the public as well, Siciliano said. LaForge said that arrangement would cost him about $10,000.
Besides the additional expense, the per diem offer is based on availability. If a customer leaves the lot, there is no guarantee a spot will be available when they return.
“Ideally the hotelier is looking for some kind of guarantee,” Siciliano said. “This is a system that should work most of the time but I guess it’s not the best solution from their standpoint.”
He also indicated the “method” of renting the spots changed to avoid potential litigation, but the reason NJSEA acquired the city’s lots six years ago was because they foresaw a need for parking for convention center events.
“We are doing more and more events every year,” Siciliano said. “We just completed major repairs and renovations in our parking lot because we need parking.”
He promised to continue working with the motel owners to find a situation that they can all be comfortable with.
Meanwhile motel owners cross their fingers on the weekends, hoping they can provide their customers with a parking spot.
A front desk clerk at one motel affected by the parking shortage called the logistics of the parking situation “a nightmare.” LaForge said he has lost customers because of the parking problem.
“That’s the vulnerability that we find ourselves in,” he said.
A number of interested people have approached LaForge about buying the Windward.
“I have a five-block ocean view,” he said. ”If the right opportunity comes along, it’s a good time to sell.”
“Wildwood is at the beginning of a new cycle,” Brannen said. “I’d like to be a part of it as a motel owner, but nobody knows if they have a place in Wildwood today.”
Maureen L. Cawley can be e-mailed at email@example.com or you can comment on this story by calling 624-8900, ext. 250.