The solution to the Cessnock CBD's car parking problem won't be quick or cheap, last week's Cessnock City Council meeting heard.
And the council won't be building any multi-level parking stations in the near future, instead choosing to focus on promoting and improving the spaces that are currently available.
The issue was raised by independent councillor Ian Olsen, who put forward a notice of motion requesting that the general manager investigate the design and location of a multi-level parking station in central Cessnock.
Cr Olsen said a carpark in Charlton Street should be a priority for council's next stage of works in the CBD, which is currently undergoing a renewal project.
"Car parking is a major issue in the community," he said.
"All I hear from people lately is 'We've got no parking, why would we shop in Cessnock?'.
"If we're going to support our local small business owners, we've got to be serious about getting a multi-level parking station in central Cessnock, and we should be making it a priority before we do any other work."
But after more than half-an-hour of spirited debate, an amended motion by Labor councillor Jay Suvaal was supported seven votes to four.
Cr Suvaal's amended motion asked council to note the cost estimates for the two multi-level carparks that are outlined in its adopted Cessnock Commercial Precinct Public Domain Plan.
As pointed out by director of planning and environment, Gareth Curtis, at the meeting, the Public Domain Plan (which was endorsed by council in September 2017) includes plans for three-storey parking stations on Keene Street and Charlton Street, including general indicative costs.
The Public Domain Plan states that the Keene Street carpark (next to Cessnock Leagues Club) is estimated at $6.65 million, and the Charlton Street carpark would cost approximately $16.56 million.
The Keene Street car park is part of stage one of the key upgrades, with a one-to-five year timeline; while the Charlton Street car park is included in the second stage, which could be five to 15 years away.
Both car parks would be built to compensate for parking spaces lost from the Lederer (Woolworths) and Cessnock City Centre (Coles) complexes to make way for a town square, with the multi-storey carparks providing up to three times the additional spaces (not just offsetting those lost).
Funding has not yet been secured for either project, which would be determined by annual council budget allocations, State Government grants and from levies or contributions from by the private sector.
Related: Cessnock CBD under construction
Cr Olsen said he voted against the commercial precinct plan in 2017 because he did not see how the $50 million project would be funded.
But he argued that as the Charlton Street car park was part of the endorsed precinct plan, it was time to move forward with it.
"We've approved the plan, let's get the plan moving forward, make sure we get the parking station in the right location, and then we'll argue about where we're going to get the money from," he said.
He said the Keene Street station would "fracture" the shopping district, and would only benefit people shopping in the Woolworths complex, not Coles or the main street.
Independent councillor Allan Stapleford supported Cr Olsen's original motion, saying it was simply asking council to investigate this site, and that as the population grows and gets older, more parking will be needed.
"Charlton Street is a prime example. It needs to be as close to the CBD as possible," he said.
Liberal councillor John Fagg agreed with the need to focus on the future.
"What happens if we've doubled our population?" he said.
Councillor Di Fitzgibbon, who has owned a business in the main street for 40 years, said there were many people who did not want a multi-storey carpark in the middle of the CBD.
"They think they are ugly, they divide the town, and think they are unsafe... If you don't have a companion with you, you're looking over your shoulder worried someone might pinch your purse," she said.
Cr Fitzgibbon questioned where the money would come from to fund the car park's construction.
Director of works and infrastructure Justin Fitzpatrick-Barr said it was unlikely that council would receive a government grant for a shopping centre carpark, which are usually funded by through planning agreements associated with adjoining developments.
Cr Suvaal said it was "a bit of a rough ask" for ratepayers to fully fund a car park that would mainly be used by shoppers at Coles and Woolworths.
"We can't pull a miracle $16.5 million out of nowhere to fund a multi-storey carpark, that are for (people who shop at) for private shopping centre complexes," he said.
"We should be out there finding better ways to promote the car parking that we do have, and not just saying 'let's just fix it with a multi-storey carpark' because I don't think that's the answer, and if people are led to believe that council's actually going to do that, they will be even more angry when we can't find the money."
Cr Suvaal's amended motion also asked that council recognise the importance of improving car parking in the Cessnock CBD as a high priority; while promoting the number of free and untimed parking spaces, working in consultation with Cessnock Chamber of Commerce to investigate signage to publicise these spaces; and for the general manager to undertake an audit of street parking to identify multiple use of zones.
Cr Olsen said of council's 745 car parking spaces, only about 380 were located close enough to the shops for people to want to park there.
"The people that shop in Cessnock want to be able to park near where they shop. They don't want to have to park behind the Cessnock Hotel, or the Volunteer Rescue Association," he said.
"We need to be proactive; if we don't have a plan to build something, we'll never build it."
Advertiser readers shared their thoughts on Facebook following last week's story, with overwhelming support for more carparking in the Cessnock CBD. Read the post here: