Officials: Parking garage project will provide numerous benefits to residents
● By Steven Hoffman
The next phase of the revitalization of Oxford Borough's business district will include maximizing the use of the buildings in the downtown―increasing the number of professionals who have offices and attracting some larger, anchor businesses that can bring more visitors to the shops and restaurants in Oxford. The parking garage, which is planned to be built on a parking lot between Second Street and Third Street, is seen as a catalyst for this economic development.
According to Brian Wenzka, the executive director of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. (OMI), the parking garage will be vital to attracting developers to Oxford in the future, but that is only one benefit of what is arguably the most important economic development project in the borough’s history.
Already, even before it is built, the parking garage is helping to encourage developers to make investments in the downtown.
Katie Kolb owns Reimagined Property Group with her husband, Tom Schreier. She said that prior to purchasing the building at 60-64 S. Third Street, they did a lot of research about the plans to continue to revitalize downtown Oxford, and they viewed the parking garage as an important part of that revitalization effort.
“We quickly felt that it was a great investment and we were very excited to be a part of the progress after meeting everyone at OMI,” she said. “From the beginning, we have felt the approved parking garage would be a huge benefit to the community as well as our own property. Now that we are more familiar with the community, as we continue the renovation process at our building, we have seen firsthand the need for additional parking for the downtown area.”
Kolb said that Oxford’s vibrancy made an impression on them, and convinced them that it was a good town to make an investment in.
“Tom and I were blown away after attending a First Friday event and it is very evident that people are coming into town to spend time with their families and supporting the local businesses,” she said. “We feel that the parking garage will only increase the ability of individuals and their families to drive into town and not have to worry about the parking situation providing an all-around better experience when coming to the borough. Our goal as business owners is to invest in small towns such as Oxford, to bring back these small towns that can provide the old time feeling of community, but that offer the modern amenities of today and a parking garage is crucial to that progress.”
Wenzka said that the Reimagined Property Group is precisely the kind of developer that Oxford Borough needs to attract to the downtown, and the mixed-use plans they have for the building at 60-64 S. Third Street is precisely the kind that will allow the buildings in the downtown to be fully utilized.
OMI, the organization that leads the effort to boost economic development in the business district in Oxford Borough, has said for years that the lack of adequate, convenient parking in the downtown area has been an impediment to meeting the needs of existing businesses and an obstacle to bringing in anchor tenants―an additional unique restaurant, some form of entertainment, or a larger business that would employ dozens of people. Attracting a business that employs more people would help increase the foot traffic in the borough during the day, which would help the other businesses in Oxford. Having more employees in town would also boost tax revenues for the borough without burdening local residents, by means of the $52 annual Local Service Tax and the 1% Earned Income Tax.
The parking garage project has many aspects to it that will yield significant benefits to all the borough's residents, not solely the owners of properties and businesses inside the boundary of the Business Improvement District (BID), starting with the fact that economic development represents the best opportunity to lessen the tax burden on local residents. As costs for municipal operations inevitably rise, there must be revenue growth to offset those costs.
Oxford Area School District residents, and borough residents in particular, face high property taxes because the commercial tax base is not sufficient. Across the county and the state, downtown areas like Oxford have been targeted as the most logical and desirable places for redevelopment because of existing infrastructure and walkability. Indeed, well-managed and healthy communities must have a vibrant and thriving commercial district. The tax base must be diversified, with the residential component balanced by commercial and industrial activities. Otherwise, the tax burden that falls on residents is too great.
According to figures provided by OMI, the Oxford Borough's Business Improvement District comprises only 2.1 percent of the total borough parcel acreage, but it contributes 7.6 percent of the total assessed property value. The economic value of the BID is such that it increases the average assessed value per acre in the entire borough by $30,167, or 7.7 percent in assessed value per acre. The increases in assessed value translates into more revenues for school districts and municipalities―and consequently that pays for services that residents need, like policing and street repairs.
The business district already provides a disproportionate positive impact on the borough, and, according to Wenzka, Oxford Borough has a lot of potential to expand the tax base even further by maximizing the spaces that are available in the business district.
“Our downtowns are our economic engines,” Wenzka explained. “We have a lot of untapped potential in town. There are buildings with second or third floors with available spaces.”
At a recent council meeting, Mayor Lorraine Durnan Bell mentioned that the owners of La Sicilia and the Octoraro Hotel & Tavern have both planned creative uses for their buildings by including space for larger gatherings like banquets or meetings. In order for these creative uses to succeed, there must be adequate, convenient parking.
Another way that the project will benefit residents is the fact that it includes a bus loop that opens up the possibility for increased access to public transportation for people who live in Oxford. The SCCOOT bus service connects Oxford to West Chester each Monday through Friday, and there's a potential for that service to be expanded. “For residents in need of healthcare services that may not have transportation, this gives them greater accessibility to service providers outside of, and east of the borough such as Jennersville Hospital and Penn Medicine,” Wenzka noted. Additionally, a bus loop could be added between Oxford Borough and Lincoln University, where students have no access to public transportation. “For decades, there has been a physical disconnect between the university and the borough. The year now is 2018, we can and will bridge that long overdue gap to build a more inclusive community,” Wenzka said. This would enable students to work and access services in the downtown. In the future, the transportation center could be a vital link for Oxford Borough to the rest of Chester County, Delaware, and Maryland.
Another major aspect of the project that often goes overlooked is the inclusion of a new administration building. The current borough hall at 401 Market Street is just too small to serve as a modern administration building for a municipality. 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. By attaching the new administration building to the parking structure, the borough has the opportunity to save a significant amount of money on design and construction costs. 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, in part because it would be difficult to acquire a property and renovate/build it into a borough hall for $1 million. The opportunity to address a long-term need as part of the parking garage project, while maximizing the one-time financial gift, is an added bonus.
In advance of the parking garage project, the borough has been able to update its parking regulations to make the most out of parking spaces that are available in the downtown. Oxford increased its parking rates to $1 to park for an hour at metered spaces. The borough has also installed meters in three parking lots in the downtown, and started to phase in permitted parking in areas adjacent to the BID. These steps will ensure that borough residents are no longer subsidizing parking in town with their tax dollars. Rather, the costs of parking in the downtown are being paid by those who use the parking spaces.
The project is going through the land-development process now, and a groundbreaking is expected later this year. As the groundbreaking on the project moves closer, borough officials will be working on the myriad details that remain. The effort to secure funding is ongoing (see sidebar). Efforts are also underway to address any concerns that residents have regarding the project's funding or the impact of the parking garage on the borough.
One example: Wenzka explained that a concern that Oxford officials have heard is that the parking garage will somehow become a place for loitering, where people will use or sell drugs or commit other crimes. “The current surface lot is not currently a documented problem area and the project will only make things safer,” he said. “The completed project will have increased traffic and visibility, with plans that call for the project to be well-lit with frequent police patrols, all of which are deterrents to crime. And the adjacent streets around the garage will also be receiving streetlights to match the ones along Third and Market, ensuring that the pedestrian areas between the garage and downtown are safely lit.”
For Wenzka, the parking garage will represent a major step forward for Oxford Borough's revitalization―it will end the discussion about obstacles and begin one about economic opportunities. “A municipality’s main responsibility is to provide supportive infrastructure. In partnership, it will be OMI’s responsibility to leverage it. And though there is lots of work ahead, OMI has a measurable track record of progress, and I have full confidence that we will succeed at the next set of goals.”
Paying for the parking garage
By Steven Hoffman
From the very beginning, the parking garage project has been dependent on the borough being able to secure enough funding from public and private sources to make it affordable for the small borough of 5,500 residents with limited resources.
It would be an understatement to say that the effort to acquire grants for the project has been successful.
When Oxford Borough recently secured an additional $143,836 in state funding to support street improvements related to the project, it pushed the total funding to over $5 million from state, county, and private sources to fund the project, an impressive figure for a project that has an estimated cost of approximately $7 million.
“The Borough of Oxford has been extremely fortunate in its efforts to secure funding for the garage/transit center,” said borough manager Brian Hoover. “Although the borough has exceeded typical public funding for this type of project, we have not stopped in our efforts to secure more grants. We are committed to seeing that the funding of this project does not end up as a burden to the taxpayers.”
The success that the borough has had in securing funding is evidence of the project's viability.
Oxford enlisted Steve Krug of Krug Architects and Pauline Garcia-Allen, of Econ Partners to serve as consultants to lead the planning efforts and 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.
The borough secured $2 million in PennDOT Discretionary funds including in-kind engineering services, $578,077 in funding through the Chester County Community Revitalization Program in 2016, and another $500,000 in 2017. Another $540,000 was received through the DCED Multimodal Transportation Fund. The borough also received approximately $430,000 in grant funding through the DCED and PennDOT Multimodal Transportation programs to support road and pedestrian improvements to the streets around the garage aimed to improve mobility and help ensure pedestrian safety. Additional funding is being pursued through the Pennsylvania Office of the Budget, Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. Oxford is also utilizing a $1 million gift that had been presented to the borough more than a decade ago by an anonymous donor who wanted the money to be used for the acquisition of a new borough building.
Along the way, 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 and critical to securing funding for the borough. Lawrence, in particular, has worked with borough officials on various aspects of the project.
In addition to seeking funding from a variety of sources, the borough also increased the parking rates last year as a way to make sure that the borough's parking revenues are sufficient to cover the costs of providing that parking. Last year, parking revenues rose to more than $90,000. That should only increase when three of the smaller parking lots in town are metered, and when the parking garage opens with approximately 350 spaces, the revenues will increase again. The current parking revenues are conservatively estimated to be sufficient to pay the borough's debt-service payments on the parking garage.
Hoover said, “Current parking revenue indicates the ability to support the project through parking revenue with borrowed funds up to $2 million dollars, and after the completion of the garage the projected revenue will exceed expenses. This will be a positive revenue stream for the borough’s general fund, stabilizing and offering the possibility of a future reduction in taxes. We are experiencing substantial growth in the borough’s residential neighborhoods and in the downtown district, and with the support of the residents and business leaders, Oxford is destined to become an economic driver for Southern Chester County.”