NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — A new online beach and parking pass system, along with a slate of fee increases, could be coming to Narragansett’s town beach next year.
Among the fee changes would be hikes to the daily admission fee from $10 to $15, and the daily parking fee from $10 on weekdays and $15 on weekends to $20 seven days per week.
Transferable resident beach passes would go from $75 to $100, and be limited to five per household.
“We want to keep it at that number because it’s manageable at five,” Parks and Recreation Director Steven Wright said. Changes to salaries, including an increase in the starting wage, are also weighing on the beach budget, he said.
The Recreation Advisory Board approved the changes in August. The admission fee hasn’t changed in two years and the parking fee has remained the same since 2011, Wright said.
“As you know it’s been a huge challenge with COVID-19 this year,” Wright told the Town Council. “We have seen an incredible effort on the part of every one of our employees this year to even make this season happen. I think they’ve done a remarkable job.”
The council held a work session with Wright to review the data from the summer beach season.
“We have this work session every fall relatively soon after the season closes so that we can get a feel for what happened at the beach – what the attendance and revenue numbers looked like,” Council President Matthew Mannix said. “It’s very helpful to the council to determine if they want to change or stay with the policies enacted.”
The town beach is designed to be self-sustaining – that is, able to operate without any additional burden on taxpayers. Fees are designed to not only cover annual operating expenses, but also pay for long-term projects such as building renovations, parking lot repairs and replacements, sand replenishment and addressing storm damage and erosion.
A 1985 land swap that used the South County Museum’s Land and Water Conservation Fund commits the beach to public access, and the town cannot limit access to only residents, Wright said. Also, fees charged to non-residents can’t be more than twice the amount charged to residents.
“Non-residents also generate a significant revenue source,” he said.
Beach revenue was down because of COVID. The total daily parking sales in 2019 was more than $226,000. In 2020, it was $8,301 – coming from sales of non-resident handicapped parking passes.
Daily admission sales dropped from $975,328 in 2019 to $897,857 this year. People chose to park either along the sea wall or on nearby neighborhood streets to access the beach, Wright said.
All told, the beach lost about $400,000 in revenue, from $2.5 million last calendar year to $2.1 million.
“We’re down about 18 percent,” Wright said. But the beach maintains a healthy $4.3 million fund balance for capital projects such as the cabana replacement, he said.
The town altered beach operations in several ways because of COVID-19. One way was by delaying a plan to make 7:30 a.m. the opening time.
Wright said that next year, the beach would open at 7:30 a.m. on every weekend and holiday rather than 8:30. The town tried the earlier opening time on three occasions this year and was very successful, Wright said.
Also this year, the sales office opened for curbside sales only, and beach staff made periodic daily announcements about COVID precautions and beach policies.
The town also restricted the North, South and Cabana parking lots to residents between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. The West lot was for employee parking.
The town had six admission sites for the beach, where employees not only monitored admission passes and IDs, but also kept count of how many people entered. Public areas such as restrooms, showers and picnic tables were cleaned regularly throughout the day. Face coverings were required at the pavilions, restrooms, concessions, sales office and other areas such as locker rooms.
At 5 p.m. each day, the town stopped charging at the lots, but kept attendants on duty until 8 p.m. to limit their use to residents.
“Our feedback to date, that was very successful. We kept a safe, enjoyable beach for the residents of this town,” Wright said.
Expenses because of COVID 19 added up for the town, and included not only additional staff and security but also money for signage, equipment such as sanitizer, masks and Plexiglas shields, and refunds for canceled weddings and events to be held at the North Beach Clubhouse.
Wright also provided a wealth of data on daily beach attendance, noting that no other beach in southern New England provides the same level of data.
The proposed online pass purchase system would start developing in about February. The town already has the software for it and would need to upgrade computers and buy photo ID printers, Wright said.
“We’re confident we can do it,” Wright said. “We’re confident people would be a lot happier, and so we want to roll that out.”
For parking, the town would use its paved lots exclusively for residents and taxpayers only in 2021. The West lot would be opened to non-residents, “if we are out of COVID,” Wright said.
Council member Jesse Pugh said the proposed fee increases go against the view visitors have of Rhode Island as a welcoming place.
“If these fees go up, they are never going to come back down,” Pugh said. “To find out what this beach will end up being, go to Connecticut or the Hamptons. It’s going to basically be a private beach.”
Mannix said that changes made over the past few years were done to alleviate over-crowding and make it a “more resident-friendly beach.”
“We want to make sure our residents, who pay the taxes and are here, get that benefit from the town,” he said.
“These recommendations on fees were thought-out, and we looked at other areas,” Rick Lema, council liaison to the Rec Advisory Board, said. “They really did their homework. Everybody had input. I 100 percent support what the board has put forth.”
Wright said the recommended changes are set to come before the council at its Oct. 5 meeting.