Oxford officials host lawmakers to discuss big project
● By Steven Hoffman
On consecutive days last week, Oxford Borough officials hosted state and federal lawmakers in an effort to finalize the funding plans for the multimodel transportation center project in the town's commercial district.
On Wednesday, May 30, congressman Lloyd Smucker and Kate Schramm, a manager of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's regional office, toured the downtown as borough officials outlined how the project would benefit the entire area. Then, on Thursday, May 31, State Sen. Andrew Dinniman and State Rep. John Lawrence stopped by the Oxford Mainstreet Inc. (OMI) office for an update on the plans.
The project, which includes the construction of a 345-space parking garage and a new borough administrative building, is at a critical point right now. The borough has already secured approximately $4 million in grants from state and county sources, and the borough has committed about $1 million from a gift fund that was donated to the borough for the purposes of constructing a new administration building. The borough is looking to borrow somewhere between $1 million and $1.5 million to help pay for the project. For the borough to keep its own spending in that range, it would need another $1 million to $1.5 million in grants to finalize the plans for funding the project, which has an estimated cost of more than $7.5 million.
Borough manager Brian Hoover emphasized that at this point, the parking garage is a shovel-ready project, which makes it viable for agencies offering grants. The bids from contractors are expected to be received by borough officials on or before June 19, and at that point, Oxford will have actual numbers for the costs of the project to work with.
“We've progressed quite a bit,” Hoover explained to Dinniman and Lawrence during the meeting last Thursday. “We're looking to pay for this without going to the borough residents and raising taxes. This project is not going to raise taxes.”
Hoover told the lawmakers that another $1 million to $1.5 million in grant-funding from a variety of sources would put the project within the borough's reach—and could boost Oxford's revitalization efforts considerably.
The parking garage is seen as a way to boost economic development in the town by providing an important piece of infrastructure necessary to attract some larger employers and businesses to Oxford. There are a number of buildings in the commercial district that could be successfully redeveloped, but parking will be a necessity for any of them.
The project has the potential to produce other significant benefits for the borough. A parking garage would, after literally decades of discussions, finally provide a long-term solution to parking issues in the commercial district. The new administration building would also take care of a need that has existed for many years. A vibrant downtown would also ease the tax burden on borough residents who currently have one of the highest millage rates in the area.
Dinniman and Lawrence have already played a role in helping the borough secure some significant grant funding for the project, and borough officials thanked them for those efforts.
“The project wouldn't be where it is without your support,” OMI executive director Brian Wenzka said.
Pauline Garcia-Allen of Econ Partners, who serves as a consultant overseeing the process of obtaining grants for the project, outlined some of the opportunities that exist for redevelopment—they include the building currently owned by the Oxford Area Sewer Authority, the recently closed Rite Aid store, and several other buildings in prime spots in the downtown that would be of interest to developers.
“I would love to see a major employer locate in Oxford,” Lawrence said. “There are opportunities for redevelopment.”
“This is going to happen quicker than we thought,” Garcia-Allen said of the increased commercial activity.
The borough has already taken a number of steps to boost parking revenues—money that in the future would be used to make the annual debt-service payments on any funds that Oxford Borough borrows to construct the parking garage. These steps include increasing the parking rates and putting in parking meters in three borough-owned lots that had, until March 1, been free.
Hoover explained that the available parking in the downtown is being utilized at a strong rate, and in order to attract a larger employer—which has long been a goal—more parking will be necessary, no matter what. Parking garages are often seen as a catalyst for economic development.
As Rep. Lawrence explained, “ If you're looking at a 50-year vision for Oxford, you have to talk about parking.”
Dinniman said that he and Lawrence would do what they could to help the borough secure additional grant funding so that the project can move forward.
“Both of us will work as hard as we can,” Dinniman said.
The state senator offered a number of suggestions to borough officials, including a recommendation of designing the parking garage so that it can easily be expanded in the future when the need arises. Dinniman also emphasized that boroughs that have successfully revitalized their downtowns have done so by developing a specific niche.
Wenzka noted that Oxford has a strong and vibrant arts community, with the Oxford Arts Alliance serving as the focal point of arts and culture in the downtown. The arts alliance offers many different music classes as well.
“We've identified the arts as our emerging identity,” Wenzka said. He talked about how the first Connective Festival, a day-long celebration of arts and music, is being planned for the downtown on Saturday, Aug. 4, and that event could also boost Oxford's profile as a destination for arts and culture.
There was also a discussion about Oxford's place in the region—it is a gateway of sorts to Chester County, and it is in close proximity to both Delaware and Maryland.
Garcia-Allen noted that the public transportation component of the project could be very important in the future—it could link the borough and its residents to the Lincoln University campus, with a possibility that the public transportation line could then extend to Coatesville, where Lincoln University has a satellite campus. If the need arises, public transportation could also link borough residents to Delaware and northern Chester County.
Oxford’s location close to Delaware and Maryland makes it a desirable place to live or do business. Wenzka noted that Oxford’s First Friday nights and other events draw visitors from the neighboring states.
It was pointed out also that Oxford is in close proximity to three colleges—Lincoln University, Cecil College, and the University of Delaware. The Oxford Area School District has a dual enrollment agreement with Cecil College, which is a great benefit to students. Dinniman said that he sees Oxford as the next borough in Chester County to really thrive because of the quality-of-life it can offer to residents and businesses.
“It's an absolutely perfect location,” Dinniman said. “You are the community that unites three states.”
Dinniman encouraged borough officials to continue to think creatively to find ways to support the revitalization efforts. He noted that West Chester Borough holds a block party on the top of a parking garage each year to raise funds for that borough's Business Improvement District.
Before Dinniman was elected as a state senator 12 years ago, he also served as a county commissioner for 14 years. The county's award-winning strategic plan, Landscapes, was first put in place when he was a county commissioner, so he has to take a certain amount of pride in seeing the boroughs in the county thriving. Revitalizing downtowns was—and remains—a key part of the county’s strategic plan because it also discourages suburban sprawl. The current county commissioners—Michelle Kichline, Terence Farrell, and Kathi Cozzone—have been supportive of Oxford’s revitalization efforts, and the county has provided significant funding for the parking garage project and other infrastructure and streetscape projects through the years.
Borough officials were optimistic that more funding might be available, whether that's from federal, state, or county sources. The results of the previous investments in the community are obvious to everyone who visits the downtown.
Dinniman noted that with some of the best available rents in the area, a large number of family-friendly activities, and the burgeoning downtown district, Oxford Borough should be a popular destination for millennials and young families looking for a high quality-of-life in the coming years.
“We are happy to work with your group to help develop a full vision of where you want to go,” Dinniman said. “Parking is part of that vision. I think Oxford is going to blossom just like Kennett Square and Phoenixville.”