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New London — When the Water Street Parking Garage reached capacity Friday, employees were forced to redirect anxious vacationers looking to catch a train or a ferry to Block Island and Long Island.
"Go to the light, take a left, go up two blocks, there's a hotel on the right and another parking garage on the left,'' Kris Dunning repeated over and over again as cars tried to turn into the city-owned Water Street garage.
By 10 a.m. Friday, the 920 spaces in the garage and the 30 spaces in front were filled.
"Follow that car,'' he said, waving an orange baton as he tried to keep traffic moving. He was sending overflow to the Cornish Parking Garage on Governor Winthrop Boulevard, a few blocks away.
A few minutes later, the same car returned, with the driver complaining he couldn't find the garage.
"I know it's frustrating for them,'' Dunning said, after he repeated the directions. "But it's OK. They're not familiar with the city. It can get confusing."
The Cornish garage, with 450 spaces, was filled by noon.
Except for the Saturday of the city's annual summer Sailfest, no one remembers the two parking garages both being filled at the same time.
"This is a good problem to have,'' said Joseph Celli, manager of the Water Street garage. "July 4th is always a busy day. But we've never, ever been close to this capacity."
Workers at the Governor Winthrop Boulevard garage, where it costs $5 per day, cash only, to park, were stuffing $5 bills into their pockets as they tried to keep up with the cars queuing up to get in.
"We've never been filled,'' said William Cornish, who owns the garage.
For a time, the sidewalks on Governor Winthrop Boulevard were filled with people toting beach chairs and beach bags, heading for the ferry terminals. Some, pulling suitcases and carrying garment bags, were going to the train station.
Irene Roman of Guilford was directing her family to hurry as they parked an oversized pick-up truck on the grass outside the Cornish Garage.
Roman was with her daughter, her son and his new bride. They were meeting her son's new in-laws, who are from Chicago, for a day on Block Island.
Roman joked that the last time she saw New London so busy "it was 100 years ago."
Judy Wawrzynowicz of Lisbon, who was taking a friend visiting from Florida to Block Island for the day to meet up with relatives, was second-guessing her plans after driving around the block looking.
"My sister thought this was a good idea,'' Wawrzynowicz said. But she and Helen Bell, who lives near Jupiter, Fla., appeared to be in vacation mode and were taking the parking dilemma in stride.
"We've got time,'' the women said, grateful they thought to leave Lisbon with plenty of time to take the 11:50 a.m. ferry.
Celli, of the Water Street garage, said in the past few years on the July 4 holiday, with the economy sagging, many people have taken day trips. This year, many did not return Thursday night, as he had expected.
"This may be a reflection of people's feelings on the economy,'' he said. "What was a one-day excursion has turned into a four-day weekend."
The municipal parking garage takes in about $500,000 a year and spends about $250,000 in operating expenses, Celli said. The rest is turned over to the city.
On the weekends, the garage also leases the surface parking lot next door.
"I guess this should be a celebratory thing,'' he said. "There's so much interest in coming to New London to see all we have to offer."