GLOUCESTER — The Vista Motel is aptly named. From the front desk, high on a knoll across the street from Good Harbor Beach, owner Laura Dow has a bird’s-eye view of the shoreline. More importantly, for years she could see the long line of traffic that queued up on summer mornings to snag the parking spots there.
Anyone who has packed up the coolers, the collapsible chairs, and the sand buckets for a day at the beach at Good Harbor or Wingaersheek — the rocky cove on the other side of Cape Ann — probably knows the frustration of idling in a hot car a half-mile from the parking lot entrance, waiting for the early birds to leave. Worse, anyone who lives along Route 127A, the road to Good Harbor, or Atlantic Avenue — the only way to get to Wingaersheek — knows the aggravation of not being able to back out of your own driveway.
Parking woes at the beaches have been a fact of life since long before Laura and Gary Dow took over the Vista Motel in 1999, and they persisted in Gloucester until recently.
“You don’t have to be that old to remember it,” says Ryan Knowles, the city’s information technologies director. “Up until two years ago.”
Then, finally, came some relief. Last summer Knowles led a push to implement a new online reservation program for non-resident beach parking. The change from the old first-come, first-served policy, says Laura Dow, was “dramatic.”
Last month, Knowles and his colleagues launched a new and improved version of the system, adopting a parking application developed by an overseas company called Blinkay. Non-resident visitors who reserve a parking spot are identified by automatic license plate readers at the gate, streamlining a process that traditionally involved cash transactions. Out-of-town reservations are $30 during the week, $35 on weekends and holidays.
“When I came to the city about three years ago, everybody complained about the traffic,” says Knowles. “There was a constant litany of complaints.”
There had to be a better way, thought Knowles. When Mayor Greg Verga, a lifelong Gloucester resident, took office in 2021, “this was a priority for him,” says Knowles.
Other beaches along the Commonwealth’s coastline use various methods to manage parking. Crane Beach in Ipswich, operated by the nonprofit Trustees of Reservations, releases day passes online on Mondays (for Tuesday through Thursday) and Thursdays (for Friday through Monday). Parking for non-Trustee members is $40 on weekdays, $45 on weekends.
This will be the fourth summer of “advanced ticketing” at Crane Beach, says Crane Estate property business manager Chris Moore, after the onset of the pandemic necessitated some heightened precautions about crowd control.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were similar to Gloucester — there really was only one way in and out,” Moore says. “Historically speaking, on a busy summer day, there would be a two-mile line of traffic on Argilla [Road]. On days like that, it wasn’t unrealistic to swing the entry gate shut by 10 a.m.” Feedback about the new system, he says, has been almost exclusively positive.
In Hull, Nantasket Beach is operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation. The daily parking fee for state residents is $15, $40 for nonresidents (which is double the pre-pandemic rate). Hull residents park free. The town uses the Yodel app, but also has retained more traditional payment methods. Advance purchase does not guarantee entry at Nantasket.
Blinkay’s director of US sales, Ryan Bonardi, is hoping to use Gloucester as a model to convince others to adopt the system.
“That’s exactly what I am hoping for, that Gloucester will be a springboard into New England,” wrote Bonardi, a New Hampshire native, in an e-mail, citing national parks and ski resorts as potential partners. “In fact, I am headed to a parking convention in Fort Worth, [where] I plan to hand out a marketing tool, showing how easy the Gloucester solution is to use.”
The Blinkay app can be adapted to suit the particular needs of each parking lot.
“It’s a platform we were really impressed with,” says Knowles. “They brought their ‘A’ game when they demoed it for us. I don’t think they’ve said no to anything we’ve asked.”
There are 500 spots available for non-residents at each of the three beaches in Gloucester, including Stage Fort Park. Each beach has another 150 to 300 spots reserved for cars with resident beach stickers. If a lot isn’t sold out, visitors can pay on the spot using the web portal. No cash is accepted, although there still are attendants on duty to check stickers.
In Gloucester, beach parking reservations can be made up to 10 days in advance. There are no refunds. Given the limits of weather forecasting, Knowles says, 10 days “seemed like the sweet spot.”
Once a visitor has reserved a spot, it’s theirs for the day, even if they don’t arrive until afternoon. Knowles says he has heard of other systems that won’t guarantee drivers a spot even after they’ve reserved one.
“That seems like a strange message to me,” he says. “That’s the linchpin of our platform.”
Though summer weather has taken its sweet time to arrive this year, the system got a good test on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, when the temperature climbed into the 80s. The city sold out its parking lots at all three beaches (including Stage Fort Park), Knowles says.
“It’s the highest capacity we’ll ever have. I talked to the police — I know the chief well – and we didn’t have a single call.”
After so many years of headaches, the smooth flow of beach traffic has taken some residents by surprise. Dow says she has a friend who owned a home near Wingaersheek but sold it not long ago, in part because of the beach parking problem. The new system “has probably increased the value of the homes over there,” Dow says. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
The old beach traffic sometimes caused her housekeepers to be late for work, she says. She’d have to think twice about heading out to run an errand on a busy beach day, since the return trip could be a nightmare. Angry visitors would sometimes come up to the motel office offering wads of cash to park in her lot, but she’d have to turn them away.
“I felt so bad,” she says. “It was terrible.”
The Dows met when both were working at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead. Eventually, they bought the Vista Motel from the elderly couple who’d originally opened it. Each year since, they’ve made improvements to the property. They live on the grounds, in the red house that abuts the rental units.
“It’s the greatest thing we’ve ever done,” Dow says.
Some of her neighbors may be saying that about the city’s new beach parking program.