New city parking boss knows a lot

Larry Cohen always liked cars. His first job, as soon as he got his driver's license, was parking cars as a valet in Philadelphia.
boss.jpgHe never thought that 30 years later he would have made a career out of it.

Cohen was named Thursday as the new executive director of the Lancaster Parking Authority, the entity that operates the five public garages and two surface lots. It also owns the streetside parking meters and kiosks in the city.

Cohen, 47, now lives in Bel Air, Md. He has been commuting by car, train and bicycle daily to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Previously, he directed parking for a company in New York City, and universities in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

"My relatives still think I park cars, like I did in high school," Cohen told members of the parking authority board shortly before they voted unanimously to appoint him to the $120,000-a-year position.

He takes over for the retiring Tom Matthews on Jan. 4. Matthews presided over authority operations for a decade.

Board members praised Matthews for solidifying the authority's financial footing, upgrading facilities and bringing technological advances to city parking.

The board wanted someone who would build on those accomplishments and take the authority's strategic plan and run with it, said Mark Vergenes, board chairman.

"We want to be more customer-service friendly, more attuned to the county and technologically advanced and more proactive and less reactive," Vergenes said.

Cohen, he believes, is the man who can help them get there.

Cohen was selected from 48 candidates after a five-month search. Half of those candidates came from outside Lancaster County and a few even hailed from other countries.

On paper, the move to Lancaster looks like a step backward for Cohen. He goes from operating 24 garages, with nearly 4,000 parking spaces and a $10 million budget to operating five garages with a $4.3 million budget.

Yet, he said, the move to Washington, D.C., also looked like a step back. In Baltimore, as director of parking and transportation services for Johns Hopkins University Medical Campus, he operated a $12 million budget and between 10,000 and 12,000 parking spaces.

The numbers, however, are misleading, Cohen said. He is more interested in the challenge.

In Baltimore, he was involved in economic development. There they reused a derelict former Ford dealership and created a satellite parking facility. It included a service area for vehicles and a local community organization was invited to come in and operate a car wash.

"It was a really good project for everybody," he said of the effort to help revitalize the industrial area.

In the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, all of the two-dozen parking garages he oversees are small, but all of them are underground. And because the area is only three blocks from the White House, security is of paramount concern.

With parking, Cohen said, "every situation is the same, but very unique."

Lancaster attracted him because it has the challenges of city parking within a compressed scale.

He will deal with economic development associated with a new garage planned for North Market Street, the adoption of technology, such as the kiosks installed in the city in 2009 and management of personnel and budget.

Importantly, Cohen said it takes him back to his roots in the business of parking.

When Cohen parked cars in high school, he didn't expect to be doing that for the rest of his life. Like the friends he worked with, he went to college and prepared for a career.

He studied communications at Kutztown University. A sports fanatic, he sought a career in broadcasting and interned with television stations.

During those years, he still worked parking cars to help pay the bills. When he graduated, communications jobs were hard to find, but the parking company offered him a full-time position.

"At one point, I think I realized they provide a really good level of service, but I think I can do it better," said Cohen.

He took his $3,000 savings and went out on his own. He established a valet parking service. His company, with drivers wearing bow ties, served a high-end clientele. They would present a long-stemmed rose to each customer.

Business took off.

Quickly, his company was doing several special events each weekend. He had 70 to 90 people on his payroll. Within a year, he had landed a lucrative contract for valet parking for the top-tier skyboxes in Philadelphia's former Veterans Stadium. (The stadium, since knocked down, is now a parking lot.)

Cohen was working seven days a week leading the rapidly growing company. After eight years, he was burned out. An offer came to sell. He did.

He spent a year as a consultant, helping other people get started in the parking business. Then, an offer came to help start a new parking program at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

"It allowed me to get back to what I thought was my calling," said Cohen.

Lancaster will bring him back to an organization that is focused on parking, he said. Much of his career, he has worked for organizations that provided parking, but they did so to support their primary role of education or health care.

"To me this is the perfect position of business and development and helping the city grow," he said.

Cohen said the plans to continue residing in Bel Air for the next few months. He will relocate to Lancaster County after his older son finishes high school there next year, he said. He and his wife, Sarah, also have a son in seventh grade.
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