By Steven Hoffman
The Aug. 20 Oxford Borough Council meeting started early and ended late as the community continues to grapple with the proposed multi-modal transportation center project.
A standing-room-only crowd gathered in the meeting room of the Oxford Area Senior Center on Locust Street for the start of the meeting at 6 p.m. The project has dominated the discussions at countless council meetings during the past two years, and council decided to set aside an additional time period to discuss it with residents as the time for a significant decision draws near.
The Aug. 20 meeting began with borough manager Brian Hoover offering a brief recap of the project up to this point.
Hoover explained that when the borough received the bids for the project in June, the lowest bid came from CPS Construction, and the amount of the bid was slightly more than $7.3 million. However, that lowest base bid included about $404,000 in building permit fees. Since the borough is the developer in this case, those fees can be waived, which would reduce the base bid to about $6.9 million.
For most of the last three years, the borough has been applying for funding from state and county sources, and has been enormously successful in the effort. Hoover explained that the borough has a total of approximately $4,618,077 in funding already secured, which is more than 60 percent of the project's costs. That figure includes grants from state and county sources, as well as more than $1 million that the borough was gifted for a new borough administration building. A new administration building is included as part of the project.
Hoover said that they are in the process of submitting additional applications seeking more grant funding from county and state sources. Hoover said that they are hoping for another $1.5 million in grants, which would leave a gap of about $1.7 million for the borough to account for. Depending on the amount of additional grant funding that the borough secures, the borough would need to borrow somewhere between $1.5 million to more than $3 million to fully fund the project.
Proponents of the project have said that the parking garage is necessary to boost commercial growth in the business district. The parking garage would include approximately 300 parking spaces that would alleviate issues, especially during busy times. The additional parking could also help the borough lure a restaurant or a larger business to town.
Hoover emphasized that the goal for borough officials all along has been to find a way to fund the project without increasing taxes on borough residents.
“From the very beginning,” Hoover said, “we’ve said that parking revenues will be used to pay for the parking garage. We do not want the taxpayers to pay for the parking garage.”
Hoover said that the debt-service payments for financing the project is projected to be about $221,000 each year. Hoover said that the revenues generated by parking meters, parking permits and parking fines would be sufficient to cover the costs of the debt-service payments—and that’s using conservative estimates of those revenues.
Concluding his comments about the funding for the project, Hoover noted that the multi-modal transportation center project includes two office spaces in the new facility that the borough anticipates being able to lease to generate additional revenues. The current borough hall could also be sold to help offset costs of the project.
A major part of the multi-modal transportation center project—and one that Hoover said gets overlooked—is the new borough administration building.
The current borough hall is woefully inadequate—if more than 10 people show up for a council meeting, there aren’t enough seats to accommodate the crowd, which is why the borough has taken to holding most of its regular council meetings at the Oxford Area Senior Center.
“We are in a borough hall that is many, many, many years old…and has many problems,” said Hoover.
Hoover explained that by including the borough administration building as part of the multi-modal transportation center project, the borough is saving a considerable amount of money on the costs of a new administration building. The borough has about $1 million in a gift fund that was established by an anonymous donor more than a decade ago to pay for a new administration building.
He noted that the costs of constructing a new borough hall on its own would likely amount to between $3.7 million and $4.7 million.
“We’d have to buy the ground and find the money to buy it because there aren’t grants available,” Hoover explained.
The borough manager concluded his remarks by stating that the parking garage project has already helped generate interest from developers in properties in the business district.
“Oxford is on the rise right now. People are investing in the downtown. New businesses are opening up,” Hoover said.
Following Hoover’s presentation, the meeting was opened up for public comment.
Michele Ianieri, a leading critic of the project, said that the more she has heard about the project, the less she favors it.
“My concerns have grown and grown and grown,” she said of the project. “Residents are not being represented.”
Ianieri was one of several people who expressed concerns about the longterm costs of the project, including the renovations that will be necessary in 20 to 25 years. Others said that they did not believe the financial projections that show the parking revenues being sufficient to cover the annual costs to make the debt-service payments and perform the routine maintenance on the structure.
Paul Andriole, a former longtime business owner in town, characterized the parking garage as a 'want' and not a need. He said that he wasn't in favor of the government using the taxpayers' money on such an expenditure.
“The money that we have is needed, and it should not be used for a want,” Andriole said. “I have a real problem with our government imposing financial hardship on its people for a want instead of a need.”
Vernon Ringler, a longtime businessman and property owner in town, lamented the fact that there is no free parking available in the borough. He also said that the costs for parking permits are too high, especially for residents who live in apartments in the commercial district. Either the property owners or the tenants will have to absorb the costs of the parking permits, Ringler noted.
Borough resident Etha McDowell said that she was worried about the borough building a parking garage that might not be needed in 10 or 20 years, and there would be no good alternative use for the structure.
Others in attendance spoke in favor of the project. After more than two years of discussions, the public comment period essentially served as a recap of previous points that had been made. Council president Sue Lombardi pointed out that the borough sent out several thousand mailers to residents about the parking garage project, and only a total of 12 people signed up to speak about the project. Lombardi noted that the borough council members themselves have received numerous emails from business owners who think that the parking garage is a good project that will help boost the local economy.
At this point, the borough's residents and business owners are divided on how they feel about the project. Similarly, Oxford Borough Council members also seem divided—there are almost certainly a few “no” votes as well as a few council members who support the project.
Borough council will soon have to vote to approve the construction bid. The bids were received in late June and there is a 90-day window to approve the lowest bid—or not. Borough council did approve a 30-day extension of the bid contract time period, which moves the deadline from late September to late October. By then, the council may know whether more grant money is available for the project.
Later in the meeting, council also had to address one more unfortunate issue related to the parking garage project—the condemnation of an access easement for a small slice of property around the Kelly family's Oxford Family Eyecare, which is situated in the middle of the parking lot where the garage is being built.
This access easement, like several other access easements for properties on the lot, is necessary for Oxford Borough to move forward with the project. The borough is not condemning any of the property, just the access easement.
Borough solicitor Stacey Fuller said that the borough has had several conversations with Oxford Family Eyecare and their lawyer trying to secure the access easement that is needed.
“We need to move this forward,” Fuller said, “because we haven't made progress with their attorney.”
Dr. Malcolm Kelly and his wife, Penny, have said that the new parking regulations have confused and inconvenienced the customers of their third-generation practice that has operated in Oxford for more than 100 years.
The Kellys are particularly concerned about parking when the construction phase of the project starts. Their patients can't be expected to walk several blocks to get the eyecare that they need. Efforts to address those concerns are ongoing, but Penny Kelly expressed her disappointment that the borough is using condemnation to gain the access easement without more negotiations.
Ultimately, borough council voted 4-3 to approve the condemnation for the access easement. No one was happy.
“My hope is that we can continue to talk so that we can find a solution that works for everyone,” Lombardi said.
Toward the conclusion of yet another marathon meeting, Lombardi expressed her hope that the borough council will vote on the project soon so that they can start working together more cohesively.
“This council needs to start working together to provide something for the community,” Lombardi said.