‘This will be the economic engine for southern Chester County’
By Steven Hoffman
Can Oxford Borough afford to move forward with a plan to construct a parking garage near its business district?
Can it afford not to?
These weighty questions will be on the minds of Oxford's elected officials and leaders until a decision is made, one way or another, on whether the borough will move forward with the project. The decision will come in the not-too-distant future, and it’s one that could impact the borough and its 5,000 residents for years to come.
Decades ago, Oxford was the economic hub of southern Chester County. Longtime residents can still remember a time when the town's business district was bustling with activity, its streets alive with pedestrians on their way to dinner or the movies, and its stores filled with shoppers. Borough manager Brian Hoover believes that the parking garage can be a catalyst for future economic development opportunities that will once again make Oxford a hub of business activity.
“It’s obvious that we need that facility,” Hoover said in an interview last week. “All the parking studies point to the fact that if you want anything to occur, you need to address the parking issue in the downtown. We have an opportunity to drive activity in the downtown district. That brings jobs to town. This will be the economic engine for southern Chester County.”
Elected officials are well aware that the borough already has a high millage rate, and from the very beginning, this project depended on the borough’s ability to obtain funding through public and private sources. Hoover emphasized that they understand that the borough's residents shouldn't shoulder the burden of paying for the costs of constructing and maintaining the parking garage.
Oxford enlisted Steve Krug of Krug Architects and Pauline Garcia-Allen, of Econ Partners to serve as consultants to lead the effort to obtain grant funding. Krug Architects has successfully helped other Pennsylvania municipalities, including West Chester Borough, build parking garages as a way to encourage economic development in the commercial district.
So far, Oxford has secured two significant grants totaling more than $1 million for the project. One came through the Chester County Community Revitalization Program. Another came from Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development Multimodal Transportation Fund. Applications for another $2.5 million in grant funding have already been submitted. Hoover said that they are still looking at other potential funding sources to pay for a project that is expected to cost around $6 million.
Over the last year, the project has evolved—it now includes a transportation center that in the future would facilitate public transit connecting Oxford to various points in the region. Plans also now call for a new borough hall to be attached to the parking facility.
The success at raising funding for the parking garage project has boosted the hopes of the project’s supporters that Oxford will finally have a long-term solution to the parking issues that have hindered the borough's efforts at attracting new businesses—especially a larger one that could serve as an anchor to the business district.
“The proposed transit facility is vital to the continued economic vitality of Downtown Oxford and the surrounding areas,” said Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. executive director Donna Hosler. “The Business Improvement District (BID) has seen the establishment of 20 new businesses over the past two years. Those businesses bring employees and customers who require convenient parking or transportation.”
Hosler added that the Octoraro Hotel and Tavern is expected to reopen later this year, and the need for parking in the business district will only increase.
“The downtown core can and should grow,” Hosler said. “There are many beautiful, but underutilized buildings and properties that could host a large employer of 100 or more. Without adequate parking or transportation, employers and developers are uncomfortable relocating here.”
Groups like the Chester County Economic Development Council, the Transportation Management Association of Chester County, and the Oxford Chamber of Commerce have all come out in support of the project, as have numerous business owners in town. State Rep. John Lawrence and State Sen. Andy Dinniman have been staunch supporters of the project. Lawrence, in particular, has worked with borough officials on various aspects of the project.
Hoover observed that thousands of cars are going through town each day, but not enough of the motorists are stopping at Oxford’s stores and restaurants. One big reason: Convenient parking isn’t available, especially during evenings and weekends. There are a large number of apartments above the stores in the business district, and the residents need parking—they often park in the spaces along Third Street, preventing others from pulling in to park close to the businesses.
Hoover said that the goal in the future might be to have fewer apartments in the commercial district.
“What do we want Oxford to be?” Hoover asked. “I think, in the future, we want fewer residential apartments and more office space above the retail stores. Apartments won’t drive the activity to the downtown district.”
Critics of the parking garage project—and there are more than a few—worry that there isn’t enough demand for parking to fill the proposed 377-space parking garage once it is constructed. Oxford will be counting on revenues generated from the parking garage to pay for a portion of its construction and the year-to-year maintenance on the garage.
Hoover said that he’s convinced, after numerous parking studies have arrived at the same conclusion, that there is sufficient need for parking to justify the expense of constructing a parking garage. He noted that there are 82 parking spaces in the parking lot where the parking garage is expected to be built. Those spaces are almost always full, and the people who park there will be utilizing the garage.
The reopening of the Octoraro Hotel and Tavern will increase the demand for parking around the center of town.
Hoover explained that a Parking Committee has been formed to evaluate the parking situation throughout the borough. A plan will be developed to make the best use of the available parking.
One change that Hoover believes is on the horizon is an increase in the charge for parking in metered spaces. Parking will likely no longer be available for 25 cents an hour in the borough. Hoover noted that that's an extraordinarily low charge, and doesn't even cover the costs of paying for the maintenance and the enforcement of that parking space.
“If you're parking for 25 cents, you're really parking for free,” Hoover said. “Twenty-five cents is not enough to pay for the costs associated with that parking space. That means that the taxpayers have consistently paid for that parking. There's no such thing as free parking.”
Hoover said that charging $1 to park for an hour is a more realistic figure. Using conservative estimates, one parking space could generate $12 a day and more than $3,600 per year. That will help the borough absorb the costs of maintaining the parking spaces and enforcing the parking regulations.
According to Hoover, the two smaller parking lots near Broad Street could be utilized in a different capacity, perhaps as permitted parking spaces for people who live in apartments above the businesses as part of the overall plan to maximize parking in the borough.
Attaching the new borough hall to the parking structure adds a new dimension to the parking garage project, and presents an opportunity for the borough to save on design and construction costs. The original plans called for retail space to be included in the ground floor of the parking structure. Those plans have evolved and now, the borough is considering utilizing part of the structure for a new, 2,700-square-foot borough hall. An anonymous donor gave the borough a gift of $1 million more than a decade ago, with the stipulation that the money be used toward the purchase of a new borough hall. Oxford officials have explored possible options for a new borough hall since the gift was made, but they haven't moved beyond the early exploration stage. There can be no debate that the borough has long-since outgrown its existing administration building on Market Street. A crowd of 20 people at a council meeting is more than the current meeting room can accommodate, and a crowd half that size must squeeze in uncomfortably to the available seating.
“You want to be able to seat 30 people comfortably,” Hoover said.
He noted that if the borough built a borough hall anywhere else, it would cost more than $1 million to buy a property and to build or renovate a building. The borough purchased much of the property on which the parking garage would be built from National Penn Bank (now BB & T Bank) for a nominal fee and the guarantee of 25 parking spaces in the garage.
Having a transportation center in the borough could also increase the demand for parking. Hoover sees people parking in the garage and utilizing public transportation to get to work in various directions throughout the region.
One obvious possibility for increased access to public transportation is the SCCOOT bus service that connects Oxford to West Chester each Monday through Friday. There's a potential for that service to be expanded. Hoover pointed out that, for most of the year, there are approximately 1,000 students at Lincoln University who don't have easy access to public transportation. There could be a bus loop added between the school campus and Oxford that would allow the students to work and shop in the downtown.
In the future, the transportation center could be a vital link to the rest of Chester County, Delaware, and Maryland.
The goal is to bring as many people to town as possible to support the business district.
“OMI (Oxford Mainstreet, Inc.) has done a phenomenal job of bringing businesses to town,” Hoover explained.
Hoover emphasized that if the business district thrives, the residents in the borough will benefit. Property values will go up for homeowners. There will be more jobs available locally, which will only have a positive impact on the economy.
“We’re trying to decrease the burden on residents, and the only way that you can do that is to increase the activity in the commercial district,” Hoover explained.
At this point, Hoover said, they are
looking to identify about $2 million more in available funding to
have the financing all lined up for the parking garage.
The borough could issue parking revenue bonds to help pay for the project, but that's where the burden of financing a portion of the project could fall to borough residents.
“We don’t want to do that,” Hoover said. “We want to get it to as low as we can.”
Oxford borough residents and officials alike are understandably leery about projections of revenue streams, particularly considering that the Oxford Area Sewer Authority last year fell behind on its payments on a $27 million loan that was used to fund an expansion of the public sewer system. That resulted in higher rates and the potential that the four member municipalities to pick up the tab on the debt-service payments.
Oxford Borough Council, as it is currently comprised, has been uncommonly frugal when it comes to spending taxpayer money. The council's thinking may best be illustrated by a statement that council member Peggy Ann Russell made at the Feb. 20 council meeting when she said that she is “moving forward inch by inch” on considering approval of moving forward with the parking garage project.
At that meeting, Oxford Borough Council approved a resolution that reaffirmed its support and partnership in the parking garage project. Council president Ron Hershey emphasized that the resolution does not obligate the borough to move forward with the plan to construct a parking garage, nor does it commit the borough to spend any additional money for the project at this time. Instead, by approving the resolution, borough council is simply reaffirming that it wants to continue the process of seeking funding for the project.
“Basically, what it says is that borough council believes in the parking structure project,” Hoover said. “The point of the resolution is that we’re moving forward.”
If the borough is able to secure some additional funding, borough council could soon be in a position to vote to authorize spending on the project. It is expected to take about 18 months to construct the parking garage once all the preliminary work for this kind of project is completed.
“We’ve already secured grants so that the clock is ticking,” Hoover said. “We are extremely close. If we don’t have that funding secured in six months, I’d say we’ve probably stumbled somewhere along the way. I think this project becomes real in six months.”