Herring pushes Norwalk Parking Authority to support Maritime Aquarium

A view of SoNo from the top of the Maritime Aquarium garage.
A view of SoNo from the top deck of the Maritime Aquarium garage.

NORWALK, Conn. – Every possible cut has been made at the Maritime Aquarium but the South Norwalk tourist magnet continues to struggle, aquarium President Jennifer Herring said Wednesday.

“Revenues are not keeping up with cost increases,” Herring said. “We have not been able to maintain our marketing buying power at our 2006 levels and the market for visitors is wildly more competitive than it was in 2006. We don’t have enough cash to operate our seasonal business without borrowing during the slow periods. … I would challenge anybody to try to operate a business under these conditions. It’s very difficult.”

Herring’s comments about the institution’s financial status were made to Parking Authority members last week as she urged them not to charge Maritime Aquarium volunteers for parking in the Maritime Garage. The proposal was discussed in secret during an executive session. Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord, an ex-officio member of the Parking Authority who was at the closed session, declined on Saturday to disclose the specifics of the proposal, citing its confidential nature. No action had been taken after the executive session, he said.

The proposed parking agreement had been negotiated over the last two years with the mayor’s office and the executive branch of the city as part of the larger lease revision that includes dropping the payment to the city to $1 in exchange for the aquarium taking over the maintenance of the 25-year-old building. The lease was approved in October by the Common Council but needs to be approved again, a technical correction due to the need to have Mayor Harry Rilling sign it instead of former Mayor Richard Moccia. “It’s one deal, but two separate agreements,” Herring said. “The board has approved these terms, that were agreed to with the mayor last winter.”

Prior to the new deal, the Maritime Aquarium was supposed to pay “one third of the assessed valuation of the property plus 10 percent of the gross revenues,” Herring said in a February 2013 NoN report. Gross revenues, she said were “more than $1 million per year.”

City Finance Director Tom Hamilton said at the time the Aquarium had not paid more than $50,000 since 1986.

Herring urged the Parking Authority to approve the parking agreement that has been drafted because, she said, the aquarium would lose its volunteers if they were asked to pay for parking.

“This agreement as it now stands with the city, the agreement that you are being asked to review tonight, is integral to the future financial health of the Maritime Aquarium,” she said. “Our cost structure now exists almost primarily of fixed costs and they are getting harder and harder to support every year.”

“We feel as though there needs to be some sort of ownership on a financial level from the Maritime Aquarium to the garage because the drastic use of it. I mean, it’s almost half,” Parking Authority member William Michael Harden said. “The number is not a big number, it’s almost like a token that there is a side to the deal because we are a business. We have a tremendous amount of expenses that we are taking responsibility for as well in this economy and in this time. I know there is a balance, but I am just trying to decide – if you had a conversation with these volunteers? Where does that come from?”

“I think that they are giving us their time and their energy. If they have to pay to do that I think we risk losing them,” Herring said.

There are 220 volunteers giving 26,000 hours over the course of a year, a $468,000 value, she said. About 170 are high school students putting in community service hours, she said. The aquarium could not open its doors if there was no one standing by the seal tank, which is done by volunteers, she said.

There are also part-time employees putting in 35,265 hours a year in a payroll that is about $696,000, she said. “They cannot afford to pay for parking either and they would not work for us if they had to pay for parking,” she said.

Herring provided an audited financial statement for Fiscal Year 2013. She directed authority members to look at the change in net assets before non-operating revenues, which, she said, showed a $28,500 bottom line.

“After all revenues, and all of our expenses, $28,000 was left,” Herring said. “I want you to understand that that’s what our bottom line is and we have a lease amendment from 2001 that requires us to put any excess into capital reserve to deal with the capital needs of an aging building.”

All of the HVAC systems, all of life support systems, the chillers and parts of the roof need to be replaced, she said.

“Everything is wearing out at the same time,” Herring said. “There’s millions and millions of dollars of capital needs that this building has that will be the responsibility of the Maritime Aquarium (under the new lease). And as you can see in Fiscal Year 13, we have $28,000 available to apply to that from our operations.”

She said that efforts to survive over the past six to eight years included reducing the staff by 15 percent, “including laying off several very senior managers.”

“We have been cutting costs in every way we can possibly find that does not harm the animals or degrade the visitor experience or compromise visitor safety. Every other excess cost is gone,” Herring said.

Her staff has not had raises, she said. She has taken two voluntary pay cuts and is now making a few hundred dollars more than she was 10 years ago, she said.

Plus, “The board of the major donors are becoming quite concerned that there has been no agreement has been reached on either the lease or the parking agreement. Further delay could jeopardize the contributed income that pays for about 25 percent of our operating budget,” Herring said.

The aquarium made $1,000 more in FY12 than it did in FY13, she said, in response to questions from Authority Chairman Julius Hayward.  There were 452,000 visitors in FY12 and 416,000 in FY13, she said.

“It’s getting more difficult,” Herring said. “We had a horrible summer in fiscal 2013, we had a somewhat better summer in fiscal 14, not as good as we hoped but somewhat better. So I suspect we’ll end up the current fiscal year – what we’re budgeted to do is end up the current fiscal year about where we were the last fiscal year in terms of attendance. We’ve figured out a few more ways to squeeze revenue out but we depend a lot on contributions to fill these gaps.”

All of Norwalk’s school children get into the aquarium for free on field trips, she said. “We have a very close relationship with the new superintendent. … It’s going to grow,” she said.

The aquarium brings about 450,000 people to SoNo a year and most of them park in the Maritime Garage, she said.

“Rather than thinking about us as a place that should be buying parking spaces from you, think about us as your partner that is bringing the major bulk of your parkers to our door,” Herring said.

The aquarium spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing, she said.

“In effect, we are your marketing machine,” Herring said. “We can’t afford to spend as much on marketing as we should be spending in a market that has been getting more competitive for the leisure minute every day but our spend is still very large. … Think about where the Maritime Garage would be without the aquarium.”


26 responses to “Herring pushes Norwalk Parking Authority to support Maritime Aquarium”

  1. EveT

    The Parking Authority should realize that without the Maritime Aquarium there would be a very limited draw for people to come and park in that garage.
    And they should issue free or reduced-fee parking passes to Maritime Aquarium workers. How many other places require volunteers to pay for parking when they come to give of their time? And how many paid workers have to pay to park at their jobs?

  2. Lifelong Teacher

    The volunteers are giving their time and effort. They shouldn’t have to pay for he privilege. Herring’s request should be supported.

  3. Sara Sikes

    If they are in such dire straights financially, how can they afford to buy, staff and maintain a research vessel for millions of dollars?

  4. Bryan Meek

    Just some facts here.

    When the garage was built it cost taxpayers over $10 million in future debt obligations and repairs and maintenance that are ongoing to this day. The Aquarium was given free parking.

    When the NPA was formed the Aquarium continued to have free parking retroactive to its original lease agreement with the city and the NPA became responsible for operating the garage and paying its debt, which it does by charging customers (not taxpayers) money.

    Now that the Aquarium is redoing its lease, it requires two separate leases. One for the Aquarium with the City and the other for the Garage under the NPA.

    When I was on the NPA it was discussed that there had to be some nominal fee charged for parking and that there be some adequate controls on the issuance of parking passes. We weren’t talking about a lot of money (less than a $1 day) or even charging the Aquarium anywhere near market rates for parking that many other non profits in the area have to and do pay.

    We were talking about doing this because of the abuses (real or potential) of the free parking situation as it were. At one point there were nearly 500 parking passes outstanding at a cost to the NPA of $180,000 a year.

    From the numbers of workers discussed above (220 volunteers, of which 170 high school) you can clearly see that this situation was out of control. Technically, you could volunteer for a week or even a few days and get a free permanent parking pass for life. Eventually passes were shut off, but the NPA had to have cooperation of the Aquarium to get this done. The NPA can’t be expected to know who is and who isn’t working and needs some control over the situation.

    Personally, I love the Aquarium and so does my family and we want to see it thrive. To do so it needs proper controls in place. By charging the Aquarium a modest amount for parking, it will make them feel accountable to it and they will manage the issuance of passes because it makes business sense to do so.

    The status quo is living rent free. There is no incentive to run things properly and this has to stop. The NPA can and should use any revenues generated directly from the Aquarium into promotional activities for the Aquarium and the area.

    Just my two cents, but BOTH of these leases should have opt out agreements for both the Aquarium and the NPA and the City. These are bodies politic that oversee these leases and it isn’t fair or right to saddle future NPAs and Common Councils by locking them into these long term deals without having ways to modify the terms. Why should the city lock itself into some long term agreements to give away our assets for nothing in return? Donors might have their demands, but the taxpayers who are picking up a MUCH larger share should have their say too.

  5. John Hamlin

    This is a reasonable request.

  6. LWitherspoon

    @Sara Sikes
    A fair question. I believe a major donor underwrote most of the cost of the new vessel.

  7. Taxpayer Fatigue

    The mentality of our city government is ridiculous – “let’s make money off of the citizens of Norwalk who volunteer their time for free. Let’s make our parking enforcement so aggressive that we drive away businesses from South Norwalk.” What a great plan!

    The Parking Authority should be required to split the revenue they receive from the visitors to the Aquarium with the Aquarium, as well as provide free parking to the volunteers. The Parking Authority generates most of their revenue from aggressive enforcement and parking fees in South Norwalk, yet doesn’t charge for parking in most other parts of Norwalk, nor spends time ticketing illegally parked vehicles. The Yankee Doodle Garage has generous free parking after hours but the Maritime Garage does not. The Post Office in South Norwalk has three unmetered spaces that allows 15 minute parking, while the Belden Avenue Station has ten spots that allows 2 hour parking (and they even have a drive through drop off for mail).

  8. Oldtimer

    Free parking for life passes ? There is a large part of the problem. How much would it cost to establish a system where the volunteers and employees could get their regular parking stubs validated at the aquarium or pay the regular parking fee. Validation would also require an aquarium supervisor, with a key, to operate the validation machine. Can’t help wondering how many people volunteered once, just to get the lifetime free parking pass. Nobody should ever get a free parking for life pass and the existing ones should all be cancelled except for city owned vehicles on city business.

  9. EveT

    Thanks @Bryan Meek for explaining the other side of the story. It is ludicrous that someone could get lifetime free parking after volunteering for just a few hours. A voucher system with the supervisor signing the voucher for each work shift makes a lot of sense.

  10. Dawn

    i volunteered at the Aquarium. it was probably one of the best things i have ever done.
    i was there when the new garage was put in. we were issued passes and were told to use only when you volunteer. i would hope that everyone followed the rule. If you do not volunteer regularly, there are requirement on the amount of time you have to give, you are required to return your pass. Which i did.
    if you are a weekday volunteer, you GIVE 5 days a week. If you are a weekend volunteer, you GIVE 2 weekends a month.
    i for one would never have been able to volunteer had i needed to pay.
    why dont they make the 2 parking lots on either end of the aquarium staff only parking and remove the meters. They might need to be a bit bigger to accommodaye all the staff on a given day but that would cover a lot. The might even be expanded.
    There are people who volunteer 5 days a week.

  11. Bill

    No one should get free parking for life if they only volunteer a few days in their life.

    Also, no one should get paid $50k+ as a janitor to clean the Aquarium. Outsource the janitors and save a ton of money for the Aquarium.

  12. Dawn

    if the aquarium has to pay people to do what the volunteers do say goodbye to the aquarium.

  13. Jlightfield

    Oh good grief, the absence of any basic operations management on both sides of the issue are unbelievable.
    Why would the parking authority give out parking passes that have no expiration, or tied to a specific spot, or car? Are these the same free parking passes the authority uses for themselves and the commission?
    Why can’t the aquarium manage the volunteers better with assigned hours with parking? Surely not all 500 volunteers, er parking passes arrive at once for the same shift? Just how many spots are concurrently needed?
    Not all volunteers need to drive and park! Sono actually has mass transit options. It’s walkable. Does Herring even know who the volunteers are and if they really need a parking spot? Is it part of the volunteer recruitment, must have to drive?
    Our city leaders made the decision to take the land that was the Aquarium’s parking lots and develop them with housing and of course the garage. Did anyone actually think through the parking needs long term of running the facility?
    The Aquarium has said that they bring in 450k in visitors each year for the past decade or so. A percentage (maybe half) are group visits by bus, which also incidentally wasn’t planned for since there is no where to park buses except in vets park. So what is the actual car impact? Average visit size? Since the garage hovers around 30% capacity it would seem that there is not any conflict over a lack of parking spaces. So the revenue loss is what exactly? Nonexisistent? Is this merely an exercise in revenue grabbing!
    A better plan for how the Aquarium staffing needs are managed along with a better revenue/parking space allocation plan might be a step in the right direction. That 7th floor could be turned over as Assigned staff parking with gates and the rest of the garage turned over to meters. Just a thought.

  14. Bryan Meek

    @Jackie. Measures were taken and it was done in part because the capacity is actually a lot closer to zero than you think. An arrangement needs to be agreed to and put in writing for the future so there aren’t any more issues or misunderstandings. The NPA and MA need to enter partnership not into servitude.
    As far as not everyone needing to drive there, well the usage statistics bear that out more than anyone might like to admit, but you have to plan for the what ifs. I can relate to the possibility that the Maritime might not want to pay for its volunteers to park for $1 a day, but that is their decision. Some kids probably think volunteering there looks good on their resume or college applications and it might be worth it? I know the kids in our marching bands pay $1000s out of pocket for their volunteerism. There needs to be perspective given to what is being asked and what reality will bear.

  15. Don’t Panic

    And this would be the same Aquarium that had the funds for a major renovation just a few years ago? I am stunned to hear that so little of the labor at this (to judge by the crowds at the gate) thriving non-profit is being paid for.

  16. Michael McGuire

    NPA commissioners – to take a line from Obama “Don’t do stupid things”. Stupid things such as taking advice that suggests having an “opt out” clause to protect the NPA or the Common Council – both entities that are funded by the taxpayer and not likely to go out of business. Neither the Common Council or the NPA needs to be protected from the Aquarium. But the Aquarium needs to be protected from Norwalk’s long-term lack of planning.
    Since the Maritime Aquarium is the “Golden Goose” for the Maritime Garage don’t you think it would be best to work with the Aquarium. With all the business savvy LAZ is reported to bring to the table a simple solution regarding policing the volunteer use of the garage should be easy. As a taxpayer in Norwalk I’m astounded to hear former NPA official Bryan Meek say that they cannot control the volunteer parking issue and need to resort to punitive measures. Absolutely astounding.
    If you try to “balance” your budget on the backs of Aquarium volunteers to support a poorly thought out garage facility that operates well below capacity since inception, you will only kill the Golden Goose… slowly. Kill the Golden Goose and you place a serious strain on the entertainment businesses in SoNo. Now you have even less parking income, property values are going down, and we the taxpayers will have to eventually bail you out, and Norwalk become more unattractive. The problem is this happens very slowly over decade(s) such that it’s not readily apparent what’s happening and you can’t really hold anyone accountable.
    Here’s a classic example of short-sighted long range planning, or lack thereof. Consider a simple parking rules of thumb such as…”never have your garage parking at a higher price than your street parking” in a commercial/retail area. Why, because it negatively impacts every business around the garage by soaking up valuable street parking spaces needed to support the street level businesses. Does Wall Street/Yankee Doodle come to mind? Yankee Doodle garage is a grossly underutilized asset and to think that we required POKO to build and outlandish automated parking garage when the Yankee Doodle Garage stands empty at night…just when the tenants of POKO’s project would need the parking! And we still have free street parking versus paid garage parking. You can’t make this stuff up.
    I’m sure Mr. Meek means well but it’s the unintended consequences of short sighted, poor planning like this that is, and has been, Norwalk Achilles heel. As I’ve stated in earlier comments – make Norwalk a nice place to be and business (and customers) will flock to our doors, and parking spaces. It’s the only thing holding us back, but it does require us to “Not do stupid things”.

  17. anon

    @McQuire and @Lightfield, Norwalk needs you.

  18. Bryan Meek

    @Michael. Go for it. Raise meter prices on the street. You are correct about the business side of it. It would never survive the political uproar that would create, but go for it
    Your information is grossly dated on the capacity and utilization of the garage. Limited data are available in the NPAs financials on thier website. But I can assure you the garage doesn’t need the aquarium to survive. The situation is in control now on a gentleman’s agreement, but the controls should be codified so there aren’t other issues like this in the future. Now that the lease agreement is being worked on, this is the time to get this done.
    And I’ll stand by my statement, that current bodies politic should not proscribe future bodies to rules and covenants decades out without the ability to change things. I agree with Thomas Jefferson in this regard. Besides, commercial leases are standard at three years. Why should the city or NPA enter any agreement longer term that basically gives neither any benefit? The mindset that the taxpayers have endless pockets is no way to run things. Stupid things would be extending the status quo. Here is an opportunity to make things better based on factual analysis and not what feels good.

  19. Bryan Meek

    @Michael. Further there was never any need or mention of balancing a budget on the backs of volunteers. The very nominal amounts discussed were a measure to have everyone have skin in the game. That the Aquarium would chose not to provide parking for its employees would strictly be their choice.
    Until the aquarium puts better controls on its operations, it will be in constant need of taxpayer bailout. If we continue to enable this behavior, who are we to judge when they turn around and need money every 5 years to fix something else? If they can’t manage these simple aspects of running a business just like any other business has to, then what else is going on under the hood?

  20. Michael McGuire

    @Bryan. I appreciate your service and hard work on the NPA . But I’m not convinced the NPA is really looking out for how it can be an instrument to further the economic prosperity and quality of life in Norwalk. So for what it’s worth here’s how I would “go for it”. First I would lower the meter prices on the street in SoNo to make it palatable to consider coming down there. How much? – $0.25 for 30 minutes.
    Next I would insist that LAZ and/or the NPA revise its punitive ticketing measures for those Norwalk Business customers (anyone using a parking space) who had the misfortune of getting back to their car after the meter ran out.
    Instead I would institute a premium parking fee to reflect that a customer was indeed staying longer. How about a premium parking fee of say $3 or maybe $5 to reflect that yes you are staying long but we (Norwalk) appreciate your business. After all, don’t we want shopper and customers to frequent our business so that we can have a thriving downtown. If we lose the customer you lose the sale, which loses the revenue, which loses the business, which drives down rents, which drives down property values, lower taxes etc. The NPA actions have clearly resulted in lost business.
    Next I would put meters on Wall Street at very low rates – say $.25/for an hour. This is essential to reinvigorate the retail environment down here. I say down here because I’ve been down here on Wall for 13 years watching daily what goes on and seeing the effect of City “planning”. But I would add lots of meters to serve the angled parking created by making Wall Street one way. Removing the meters further burdened Wall/Main and kept vitally needed retail business away.
    Now regarding the MA (baring any information to the contrary I assume prudent management at the MA). I do agree with you that we should memorialize an agreement with the NA. But the terms should be long-term and reflect the anchor status of the MA. Anchor tenant leases are long term leases (25-60+ years). No anchor tenant in their right mind would enter into short term leases regarding parking. Parking is the lifeblood of almost every business. Why seed that control to an ever changing political board. Way to much risk.
    Skin in the game – the MA is there, operating arguably one of Norwalk’s most vital attractions through some tough times. How about the NPA have some skin in the game and run the volunteer parking for them – at no cost. Did you hear what Ms. Herring was saying? You may not think the MG needs the NA, but have you considered the drag on the surrounding business without the NA? If they drag the MG drags. The parking assets of Norwalk belong to the Norwalk taxpayer – not the NPA.

  21. Bryan Meek

    @Michael. Demand based pricing will be a reality in the near future. We approved a tech plan last year that will some day enable the NPA to realize this potential.
    12% of the system revenue is from parking tickets. The goal is not revenue. It is enforcement. Without enforcement storefronts would be clogged with cars that never move. That would kill businesses more than the small handful of people who chose not to adequately feed meters. New Canaan writes more tickets pound for pound and NPA does a small fraction of what Greenwich does.
    There are always going to be parking tickets in any city regardless of how easy or how cheap you make parking. The tech plan will also help NPA to more appropriately enforce zones based on the data the system will be able to collect. This will enhance revenues which can be used to lower prices in some areas. It might mean more tickets at first, but it will also mean more compliance. You’d be surprised how many people never pay to park and never get tickets.
    The tech plan isn’t everything, but it is going to change things for the better, something the NPA has always been about regardless that people plain don’t like to pay to park. But who does? If we don’t charge what amounts to mostly out of towners to park, then the taxpayers will have to foot the bill for taking care of the structures and enforcing.
    The tech plan is going to go live in a few weeks. Besides the enhanced operational effectiveness it will bring the NPA, you’ll be able to pull up a phone app that will tell show a heat map of where parking is available.
    I agree on Wall Street. I go further to say the city should by the lot behind the library and make it free parking. I priced it out and 25 cents per meter over 25 years would pay for it at fair market value. The bank no longer needs this entire lot with the advent of online banking and direct deposits.
    As far as the Aquarium, I don’t doubt its value to the neighborhood. I just know what I know from the issues we had with them and it could only be managed with access to personell data. I don’t see how you can set that up. It’s their business as far as I’m concerned.

  22. Jud Aley

    Michael McGuire—“First I would lower the meter prices on the street in SoNo to make it palatable to consider coming down there. How much? – $0.25 for 30 minutes.”

    Shouldn’t it be that the parking garage and Webster lot rates be lowered and street side metered parking rates be left as they are or even raised at certain times? Lowering the meter rates would encourage meter feeding, long term retail employee street side parking and reduced street side parking turnover that is crucial to retail/restaurant survival. As a building owner on Wall Street I’m sure you know what I mean. I think your ideas about meters on Wall Street are right on the money. And for now make the Yankee free until demand tells the city otherwise.

  23. jlightfield

    @Bryan Meek and @Mike McGuire, meters on street parking are to encourage turnover. The pricing model and enforcement that you have both expressed does not match the current issues with parking on Wall Street. There is not a lack of parking or reason to turn cars over a shorter time period. The area has little retail, mostly residential and office occupancy.
    The retail that Wall Street does have is concentrated between River St. and Belden/West Ave. The Yankee Doodle Garage and Mechanic Street lots provide permitted parking there.
    The most contentious curbside parking is between the Globe and City Market.
    There is retail between Main St. and Smith Street. It is supported by the Main/High Street lot which is also unmetered.
    The issue on Wall Street has always been one of convenience, people complain if they have to walk a little farther than curbside.
    Increasing the street parking to angled parking would be an improvement. There is no need to increase parking meters, or enforcement.

  24. Nancy

    I agree with @jlightfield. The lack of angles parking on Wall Street is PRECISELY the reason the few retailers that attempted to establish there left. Just ask them. The Stand, the printing company, the old meat market. These owners are still local, but have relocated to locations in SONO, Southport, and Stamford…all with adequate parking.

  25. Dorothy Mobilia

    The issue of street parking in the Wall Street area is a key one. Store owners tell stories of customers fined heavily for a quick stop to pick up merchandise they ordered, of handicapped people being told to park in the nearest parking garage blocks away, of parents wanting to take their children to the library on a rainy day, of volunteers and workers also often having to walk blocks to get to the library, of people going to the post office and in some cases, double parking, when they are loaded down with packages to be sent. Some years ago, the city paid for a parking study that recommended the purchase or an arrangement with the owners of the Order of Eagles and the People’s lots. Then there’s the First Taxing District lot. There is no lack of parking potential in that area, just that it’s off limits to almost everyone in need of a space. This article, and comments regarding the insane parking issues in South Norwalk and Norwalk, cry out for some immediate changes. It’s about the customers, the taxpayers, the studies, that all tell us about the need and realistic solutions.

  26. Oldtimer

    Mr Meeks sounds convinced that both the parking authority and the aquarium should be run as for-profit businesses. He seems to think that better management would/could make the aquarium profitable, demonstrating how little he knows about the cost of feeding the animals and keeping them comfortable in an environment of crystal clear water so visitors can see. The fact is both the aquarium and the parking authority were conceived as tax supported services with the hope that both might come close to meeting their own expenses. In order to avoid being the politician who raised taxes, over the years a lot of formerly tax supported services have been converted to fee-based operations, including water, sewers, the aquarium, parking, and, to some extent, parks and recreation. Sometimes it is easy to forget the original and primary reason for these operations remains service, not profits.
    There is no question the aquarium draws a lot of visitors and some of them spend money in SONO businesses. It is impossible to quantify the total business the aquarium attracts, but it is probably substantial. The parking garage would probably be run as a total loss without the aquarium. Both sides would benefit from a reasonable agreement such as Ms Herring has requested, with some control to prevent abuses.

Leave a Reply

Recent Comments