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With Witch City girding for big event, some find October's crowds no treat

While merchants welcome the 100,000 visitors expected to descend on downtown Salem for Tuesday's Halloween festivities, some residents wonder if the holiday that serves as a main cog in the city's economic engine is worth the traffic and parking headaches it creates.

"It's just way out of control," said Deb Arno, who stood on a corner near the House of the Seven Gables with Luis D'Avila and talked about the effect that Halloween has had on the community. "I think Salem loses its historical charm through this. There's so many great things about Salem, and Halloween isn't one of them."

D'Avila and Arno say many residents, like themselves, choose to not drive on October weekends because of the congested roads. "On a good day it takes 30 minutes to get out of Salem to the highway," said D'Avila. "This time of year you're looking at one hour to get to Route 128."

While unsure just how many dollars flow into the city each October, officials and business owners say it is the most important economic month of the year for Salem.

"Our economy relies on tourism," said Mayor Kim Driscoll, who acknowledged that motorists can have a hard time finding a place to park downtown.

A regionwide effort is underway to help visitors maneuver their way into the city. Over the last two years, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the MBTA, the state Highway Department, and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority have worked with representatives from Peabody, Beverly, Danvers, and Lynn to boost alternate routes for tourists. Signs have been placed along Route 1A, Route 129, and Peabody's Lowell Street and Centennial Drive to direct motorists. Also, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has added additional trains to Salem on weekends this month and on Halloween.

The effort has worked to steer motorists away from Route 114, which cuts through Peabody between Salem and Route 128, officials said.

"Peabody is one of the communities hardest hit by traffic because of our prime location and regional hub," said Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti. "This effort was a real priority for me because of concerns around safety."

Added Driscoll: "Traffic along Route 114 can cause a lot of headaches during the Halloween season, and this strategy gives people looking into Salem some options."

Another option will be the Salem Ferry, which began round-trip service from Boston this summer. Bill Walker, owner of Water Transportation Alternatives, which operates the ferry, said his company has carried about 1,400 passengers each weekend this month.

"They're mostly coming from Boston to Salem," said Walker, who has added an extra run back to Boston on Halloween night. He'll also have another high-speed ferry standing by if the regular boat fills to its capacity of 150.

For motorists who choose to park downtown, the quest to find one of the 2,314 legal parking spaces can be difficult, Driscoll acknowledged. Over half of the spaces are at the Museum Place and South Harbor parking garages, where motorists pay a flat fee of $15. Salem's parking director, Jim Hacker, said the garages have been filled to capacity several times this month.

Driscoll said the revenue from city parking lots will exceed $250,000 this month, and will help cover the $200,000 the city spends on police details and other city services on Halloween.

"We're expecting 100,000 people on Halloween night," said Salem Police Captain Brian Gilligan, who will be the department's event commander on Tuesday. At 5 p.m., many downtown streets will be closed to cars, including parts of Washington, Lafayette, Essex, Bridge, Derby, and Dodge.

Gilligan said 200 officers, including police drawn from several nearby communities, will be working to control the crowds on Tuesday, directed from a mobile command post on Lafayette Street. He said they will be able to monitor at least four sites downtown using cameras controlled from the command post.

He advises revelers to take public transportation to the city, or, if necessary, arrive early and find a parking space in a municipal lot. He expects the downtown streets to reopen by 11 p.m.

By then, residents like Denise Baron and Brian Savory will have returned to their homes.

Baron, who works as chef and has lived in Salem for three years, said she would join the crowds Tuesday night, but would leave her car at home. "I really try not to drive down there in October," she said, pointing in the direction of downtown.

Nearby, Savory said he would embrace the crowds that will come on Tuesday.

"It does get hairy downtown, but that's the fun of living in Salem," he said.

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