'This is a great opportunity for this town'
By Steven Hoffman
A 45-minute presentation detailing the plans for a parking garage and transportation center in Oxford’s business district led to a lively and more lengthy exchange of ideas and opinions between residents and elected officials during a town hall meeting at the Ware Chapel on April 11.
The town hall, which drew a standing-room-only audience, was planned as a way for Oxford officials to outline plans for the project, including how it will be paid for. But just as important was the opportunity for residents to have their questions answered and concerns addressed before borough officials decide to move forward with the project.
Momentum has been building to construct a 377-space parking garage in Oxford’s commercial district since a 2015 parking study concluded that a parking structure would offer a long-term solution to the town’s parking issues and simultaneously serve as a catalyst for economic development.
At the town hall meeting, proponents of the project described it as a core infrastructure investment that could help boost the local economy for decades to come by helping Oxford’s efforts to attract businesses to town—especially an anchor tenant like a restaurant or a larger employer looking for office space in a downtown setting.
“This is a great opportunity for this town,” said Wilson King, the owner of the Outback Trading Company, one of Oxford’s longtime businesses.
The case for the parking garage
Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. executive director Donna Hosler explained that she regularly receives calls from people who are interested in commercial opportunities in the borough. A lawyer might be looking for office space or a developer might be looking for an investment opportunity in one of the borough’s distinctive buildings. But the lack of parking is a hindrance time and again.
“Without parking, there is no point,” Hosler said. “That has been an ongoing frustration.”
Part of the presentation explaining the need for parking in the business district included a color-coded illustration of all the buildings in downtown that have no parking or much less parking than is required by regulations. For many years, as the owners of buildings in the commercial district converted space into rental units, parking was not accounted for—the property owners were not required to provide parking for the residents or to provide funding to the borough that would be utilized to add parking somewhere else. As a consequence, the borough started to build up a deficit of parking spaces. Also, residents who live in the commercial district frequently park in the metered spots that would ideally be reserved for customers to the stores.
State Rep. John Lawrence explained that numerous parking studies have concluded that a parking garage is necessary for the borough to address its long-term parking needs.
“If Oxford wants to attract a large downtown employer…the parking issue needs to be addressed,” Lawrence said.
'We don't want taxpayers to pay the bill for this'
With the “why” established, the next thing was to explain the “how.” Paying for the project is a major concern for both elected officials and residents.
Oxford Borough Manager Brian Hoover explained that the borough is making every effort to secure funding from outside sources so that the impact to the borough’s annual general fund budget is minimized—or, under ideal circumstances, there would be no impact at all.
“We don't want taxpayers to pay the bill for this,” Hoover emphasized.
Numerous residents at the town hall meeting agreed—they don't want the added burden of paying for the parking garage, either. Oxford Borough already has one of the highest millage rates in the area, and the annual budget is tight.
Lawrence explained that Oxford Borough officials have consistently had one message throughout the entire process—they are interested in pursuing a parking garage as a way to encourage economic development and increase parking, but there must be a financially responsible way to pay for it. That means funding from public and private sources.
“This is not a project the borough could afford on its own,” Lawrence said.
The project evolves
Oxford enlisted Steve Krug of Krug Architects and Pauline Garcia-Allen, of Econ Partners to serve as consultants to lead the effort to obtain funding for the project. The project has evolved during the course of the last 16 months to now include a transportation center and a new borough administration building.
Garcia-Allen explained that the transportation center component of the project could have some very positive long-term benefits for Oxford residents as it will connect them to other public transportation systems in the region. As it stands now, Oxford is left out of discussions about regional public transportation, but that would change if the borough had a transportation center. In the future, the transportation center could be a vital link to the rest of Chester County, Delaware, and Maryland.
“This project has been a catalyst for a lot of transportation discussions,” Garcia-Allen explained.
The addition of the transportation center and new administration building has pushed the price of the project to $6.5 million—but it has also helped make the project eligible for additional funding.
According to Lawrence, the project has been remarkable in its ability to attract funding support from county and state sources. 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. The ability to secure funding from county and state sources for the parking garage underscores the viability of the project.
Said Lawrence, “The people who do this for a living see that it is a worthy project. Every town from here to Erie wants to build a project like this.”
In order for the project to reach this point, the borough had to acquire property for the parking garage. The borough was able to acquire the National Penn Bank lot for $1 a year and 25 spaces in the parking garage for a period of time. The borough is in negotiations to acquire the portion of the lot owned by Verizon.
“Over the last two years, we have had talks with Verizon, and I think it’s fair to say Oxford is close to acquiring that lot,” Lawrence told the audience.
Garcia-Allen credited Lawrence and State Sen. Andy Dinniman for working diligently to secure funding for the project—without that support, she said, they wouldn’t have been able to acquire the grants.
Garcia-Allen said that Oxford has a number of strengths—its location, diversity, and wonderful stock of buildings in the commercial district. She explained that Oxford Borough has had some success in attracting new businesses as a result of the efforts of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc., the stock of good buildings, and other factors. Adding a parking garage into the mix could help continue that momentum. Ideally, some of the space in the buildings downtown would be converted from rental units into office space for lawyers, accountants, and other professionals.
“That's the type of activity that will keep the downtown thriving,” Garcia-Allen said.
Having more people working in the borough during the day increases the foot traffic to shops and restaurants—the “lunch crowd” that small towns desire, but find very hard to make a reality.
“Without a lunch crowd, we can't continue to thrive,” Hosler said.
A conservative financial approach
When it was time for residents and property owners to express their opinions or ask questions, a definite theme emerged: Many residents have concerns about the financing for the project.
Oxford officials did their best to assure residents that they are taking an extremely conservative approach to paying for the project.
In addition to the grant funding that is secured for the project, the borough has about $1.2 million in a gift fund. An anonymous donor provided the borough with the funding more than a decade ago with a requirement that the money be used for an administration building.
If the grant funding and the gift money for the administration building reach $5 million total, that would mean that the borough would need to find about $1.5 million to fully fund the project. It’s possible that additional grant funding would become available, which would reduce that number even further.
Hoover said that the borough would rely on parking revenue bonds to pay for the rest of the project.
If the borough issued a parking bond for $1.5 million, it would cost about $89,000 per year to make payments for a 20-year period to pay off the debt. It would also cost about $185,000 annually to maintain the new parking structure.
The revenues generated from the parking garage as businesses and regular users purchase permits to park in it will be used to offset those costs. According to Hoover, if there were 100 parking spaces utilized in the parking garage for six hours a day and just five days a week—all figures that he deemed to be conservative estimates—the borough would end up with revenues of $156,000 per year.
Boosting parking revenues
Additionally, it seems all but certain that the costs of parking in Oxford will increase. The borough’s parking committee will be evaluating the parking situation throughout the borough, and 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.
According to the borough manager, 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.
“There's no such thing as free parking,” Hoover said. “Right now, the the taxpayers are footing the bill [for the parking that's available].”
Sewer Authority's financial woes make residents wary
Understandably, residents are wary of the use of projections to justify a major project after the Oxford Area Sewer Authority fell behind on its payments on a $27 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture. The Sewer Authority blamed its financial woes on inaccurate projections of the demand for sewage capacity from commercial and residential developments. Oxford area officials are currently exploring long-term options for the Oxford Area Sewer Authority and its newly upgraded system, including the possibility of selling the system to a for-profit entity, but for right now the four member municipalities could end up having to make good on the Sewer Authority’s debt-service payments on the loan until it is in a more stable financial condition. That has significant consequences for the municipalities, particularly Oxford Borough.
Lawrence noted that the Oxford Area Sewer Authority's situation was completely different—starting with the size and scope of the project.
The Oxford Area Sewer Authority borrowed in excess of $27 million to fund a major expansion of the public sewage system for the Oxford area. The parking garage and transportation center, by contrast, is projected to cost $6.5 million, and most of that is already coming from public or private sources that won't impact local residents.
Even so, residents were concerned about the use of projections.
As one resident said, “These projections are wonderful, but what happens if they don't work?”
Residents like Karen Lubovinsky, an attorney and architectural engineer who lives in Oxford, expressed concerns about relying on projections like the Oxford Area Sewer Authority board did when it planned the major expansion of the sewage system.
“I see a repeat on a much smaller scale,” she said.
Resident Zoe Walsh also said that she is skeptical about the projections, and whether the borough will be able to afford to pay for the parking structure if those projections aren't met.
Chauncey Boyd, a borough resident, said, “I'm not opposed to a parking facility,” but added that he, too, was worried about the use of projections—especially after the Oxford Area Sewer Authority's situation. Boyd said that they could look at other options, like taking several under-utilized buildings near the business district and transforming the parcels into a regular parking lot.
Dick Winchester, a community leader who was an educator and administrator at Lincoln University for nearly 40 years, said that it was important for local officials to take into account the sentiments of people who live and work in Oxford Borough when making the decision.
Winchester also said that one of the issues that hadn't been addressed, but should be, is the security of the proposed parking structure.
In response, Krug explained that the building will be designed with good lighting, lots of open spaces, windows in the elevators and cameras where appropriate.
Hoover added that they currently have a plan to assign an extra police officer to a shift at night, and part of that officer's duties will be keeping an eye on the parking garage. Additionally, there is a part-time maintenance worker to take care of the parking garage. Funding for these positions is already included in the borough's annual cost projections to maintain the parking garage.
A few residents expressed concerns that the project's costs would increase before it is completed, leaving taxpayers to pay for more than what they are being told.
“I am for this,” said borough resident Susan Melrath, who previously had a business on Third Street. “But I want a promise that it will not go above $6.5 million.”
During the course of the town hall meeting, a few people suggested that the businesses in town should pay for any of the costs that aren't taken care of by funding from outside sources.
Borough resident Lorraine Durnan Bell, a current Oxford School Board member who filed to run for mayor this year, expressed her support for the parking garage—but said that it wouldn't be fair to place an extra burden on business owners.
“We need the parking,” Bell said. “We can't ask the businesses to pay for this. They already put their money into this town. We want this for our town. We want businesses that are here for many, many years.”
Not everyone agreed that a parking garage is even needed.
Randy Teel, a longtime former council member who still owns a business in town, said that the parking issues have been misrepresented. He argued that Oxford does, in fact, have sufficient parking.
“It's not a lack of parking, it's a lack of convenient parking,” he said.
Teel added that he believes the projections overestimate the number of people who will be parking in paid or metered spots in town, and consequently the revenues generated will also fall short of projections.
“I'm not against the parking garage, but I am against raising taxes,” Teel said. “I don't want my taxes raised because of this.”
'Do we want to be having the same conversation 15 years from now?'
One of the most thought-provoking statements of the evening came from borough resident Greg Cox. He recalled being in the same room in 2001 when Oxford officials were discussing the exact same issue.
Parking has been an issue for a long time, and only small changes have been made. If the borough doesn't move forward on this project, what is the plan?
“We now have many new businesses,” Cox said. “There are very few storefronts that are vacant. People have been having this discussion for 15 years. Do we want to be having the same conversation 15 years from now?”
Later, Garcia-Allen shared the same sentiment. She pointed out that, while the borough may be able to secure funding for the project at some point in the future, it is unlikely that they will be able to get this much funding. Also, the costs of the project are likely to only increase if the borough wanted to do the same project five, ten, or fifteen years from now.
“The question will be, 'why did you not move forward when you have almost $4 million in funding for the project?'” Garcia-Allen explained.
'I think we have a great opportunity for the borough'
At this point, the borough has authorized payments to the consultants for facilitating the search for public and private funding. In February, borough council voted unanimously to continue that process, but there has been no vote yet on whether to spend money to construct the parking garage. If borough council were to authorize the new parking garage and transportation center, it would take about 14 months to complete the construction work. It's possible that work could begin at some point in 2018.
Ron Hershey, the president of Oxford Borough Council, said that council would continue to take a cautious approach as funding for the project gets finalized.
Hershey observed that small towns across the country have had to reinvent themselves, and the parking garage would be a step in that direction for Oxford.
“I think we have a great opportunity for the borough,” Hershey said. “We want to move forward in a smart way. We want to do things right.”
Hosler said that having ample parking in the business district would help the borough attract a wide array of businesses to the downtown.
“We want more experiences—things you can't get anywhere else,” Hosler said. “We want more of what we have now.”
Lawrence said that one of the reasons that the project has proven to be such a viable one with county and state agencies that provide funding is that it is a core infrastructure project that meets a specific need in the community. Lawrence explained that everyone has heard the story about the town that purchased a ladder truck for the fire company that could put out a blaze on a ten-story building...when the tallest building in town is three stories high, making the purchase both wasteful and unnecessary. That is not the case with this town and this parking garage, Lawrence said.
Larry Drennan, Jr. whose family owns Oxford Feed and Lumber, one of the town's cornerstone businesses for decades, said: “Oxford Feed and Lumber has been behind this project since the beginning. This is an investment in the future. This is a bargain we are getting, folks.”