MennaMayor Pasquale Menna speaks as RiverCenter executive director Nancy Adams looks on.

Through all the reports that things are worse elsewhere and exhortations that merchants find “opportunity” in the current recession, the topic that the 300 or so people who attended Tuesday night’s ‘economic summit‘ on Red Bank’s commercial woes most wanted addressed, apparently, was parking.

Mayor Pasquale Menna came through, first with an announcement that parking at metered spaces would be free on Saturdays and Sundays for the rest of 2009, and then with hints that the parking garage many merchants have clamored for may move back onto the town’s agenda after several years’ absence.

His past opposition to a parking deck at the site of the White Street municipal lot, he says, has always been based on this insistence that it not be paid for by taxpayers, and that it be “self sustaining.”

Now, he says, “I believe we’re pretty darn close to a number of different scenarios which will alleviate those concerns,” he said to applause near the end of the two-hour event at the Count Basie Theatre.

Menna’s comments followed an emphatic “yes” from Jerry Zaro, chief of the state Office of Economic Growth,  when asked if such a garage might qualify for federal or state stimulus funds.

The state Economic Development Authority has helped finance municipal garages in Harrison, New Brunswick and Trenton, Zaro said.

“I think it can be done without any taxpayer money, possibly,” Zaro said, noting that the fact that the borough owns the land on which a deck might be built argues favorably for such funding.

Comments such as those, pointing to possible relief of what many in the audience regard as a shortfall of parking in the right place and aggressive meter enforcement, were met with the strongest applause of the two-hour event.

The summit, which was free and open to the public, featured a panel of officials representing state and county government; Monmouth University; and local interests, including Riverview Medical Center. Each gave a brief status reports on efforts to mitigate the effects of the recession before the event was opened to questions.

Property owner Elaine Sourlis of the Galleria store and office complex on Bridge Avenue said landlords “need to sit down” with tenants to renegotiate leases to halt the exodus of small businesses from town.

“I’d rather have a rented space than a vacant space,” she said.

Two speakers suggested that Red Bank’s ills, relative to other locales, are not as bad as they might seem.

Peter Reinhart, a senior executive at Red Bank-based national homebuilder Hovnanian Enterprises, said 35 states have higher foreclosure rates than New Jersey, interest rates are at or near post World War II lows, and gas prices have retreated 60 percent from their highs of last year.

“The negative spin is all that we hear,” Reinhart said. “Think about the positive spin,” such as the fact that “ninety-three percent of the workforce is working.”

Richard Spengler, chief lending officer at Investors Savings Bank, said all 10 banks in town that have traditionally made commercial loans are still lending. “Everyone needs to look at your local banks,” he said. “Things are a lot different than you’ll see on MSNBC in the morning.”

Questions were submitted on by audience members on index cards and selected by Menna. Most had to do with parking.

Vincent Woods of Love Lane Tuxedos on Broad Street left the theater calling the event “a joke” because, he said, panelists used up more than an hour polishing their own apples and the questions from the audience were screened. “They picked what they wanted” to answer, he said.

He said he wanted to know if Red Bank RiverCenter, the autonomous entity that collects $600,000 a year in special taxes from merchants, would be trying to cut its budget five percent across the board, as the borough council has said it would.

But others said they thought the event was encouraging, and expressed hope that one of Reinhart’s ideas — the creation of a panel of locals with economic expertise to advise the mayor and council — be followed up on.

“They hit on some good things,” said Stokaboka owner Michael Boylan.

Frank Cannarozzo of Holmdel, a stock exchange employee who owns the vacant storefront at 23-25 West Front Street — former home to the tuxedo business, and site of a failed plan for an art gallery — found the event “very informative. If even half the ideas they covered come to fruition, the town is going to be much better.”

As for the weekend moratorium on parking enforcement, “it’s a start,” Cannarozzo said. “But if they really want to take the bull by he horns, they’ve got to knock off Thursday and Friday nights as well.”

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