Oxford Borough Council approves parking garage and new borough hall
● By Steven Hoffman
Oxford Borough is moving forward with a plan to build a parking garage and a new borough hall after borough council voted to approve a construction contact for the project on Monday night.
The 4-3 vote to greenlight the hotly debated project will clear the way for one of the largest projects that the borough has ever undertaken. The project has been the topic of much debate during the last three years, dominating most of the council meetings. Those who support the parking garage view it as the centerpiece to the borough’s revitalization efforts because it will increase Oxford’s chances of attracting an anchor tenant, a restaurant or a larger employer, to the commercial district. The parking garage will also address parking issues in the commercial district that have existed for decades.
Critics of the project view it as an expensive option that won't benefit the residents of the borough and could end up placing a huge financial burden on taxpayers.
Council member John Thompson made the motion to approve a construction contract to CPS Construction, which was the lowest qualified bidder when the bids were submitted to the borough in June. The amount of the bid was slightly more than $7.3 million. However, that base bid included about $404,000 in building permit fees that are required by Oxford Borough's regulations. 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. Council member Ron Hershey seconded the motion.
Borough council, like the community itself, has long been divided over the parking garage issue. The meeting began with a public comment period where residents expressed their support and opposition to the proposed parking garage project. After more than two years of discussion and debate about the project, only a handful of people offered comments—and those comments were measured.
Jim Price, voicing an opinion that numerous business owners in town have shared, said that the parking garage would be a major benefit to the town because it would boost economic development opportunities.
“We can have endless opportunity by doing this project,” said Price, who owns a number of buildings in town.
Business owner Randy Teel, himself a former longtime council member, shared a sentiment that has also been expressed by numerous people over the last three years. Teel said that he was concerned that taxpayers would end up being responsible for the costs of the project. He referred back to a meeting in 2016 in which a council member stated that the parking garage project would only be approved if sufficient grant funding was secured to make the project financially viable. This statement, Teel said, was made in response to concerns that a resident expressed that night about the costs of the parking garage being shouldered by residents.
Mary Lou Baily, a borough resident who also works for Oxford Mainstreet, Inc., said that building a parking garage now to meet future needs would be an illustration of being proactive, rather than being reactive. Why wait for the parking issue to get worse when it could jeopardize the borough's opportunities to grow its commercial base?
Borough resident Richard Winchester, a retired professor, expressed his opposition to the parking garage project. Winchester pointed out that there are plenty of parking spaces available in the borough's downtown on most days of the week, including spaces in three parking lots that previously offered free parking, but are now metered.
Winchester also noted that the borough's estimates on the timeline for the project, as well as for the costs of various aspects of building the parking garage, have missed their mark.
“Your record on estimates about money and timing for the project have been disappointing,” Winchester said. He concluded his remarks by saying that a small survey of residents showed that a majority of people were opposed to the project.
Brian Wenzka, the executive director of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. and several other people quickly raised issues with the accuracy and methodology of that survey. It was noted that only a small number of residents were surveyed, and the sample size wasn't sufficient to draw any meaningful conclusions. Approximately 5,200 people live in the borough, and fewer than 200 people were apparently surveyed.
Geoff Henry, a former mayor of the borough, read a letter on behalf of the Oxford Presbyterian Church Session, which stated its opposition to the parking garage project. The letter noted that construction on the parking garage would make it difficult for vehicles to be able to access the church's small parking lot. Additionally, there is a lack of convenient, free parking available during church activities on Sunday morning and throughout the week.
Borough council president Sue Lombardi wanted all the questions that were raised during public comment to be addressed before a vote so borough officials spent about a half an hour going through those questions one by one.
In an effort to address some of the concerns about the costs of the project, borough manager Brian Hoover explained that the borough has already secured approximately $3.6 million in funding through state and county grants. Another $1 million was gifted to the borough by an anonymous donor for the purposes of securing a new borough hall. Hoover said that there is an additional amount of money—somewhere between $1.2 million and $1.3 million—that will be utilized from the borough's building fund and capital projects fund to further reduce the amount of money that will be borrowed. There is also about $200,000 remaining in the gift fund. This will help limit the long-term impact to the borough's general fund budget, Hoover explained.
Pauline Garcia-Allen of Econ Partners, who has served as a consultant to the borough throughout the process to secure the grant funding, said that there are still two grant opportunities that the project could qualify for in 2019. One possibility, she said, is applying for $800,000 in Community Revitalization Program (CRP) funding that is administered by the county.
“The county has been receptive to the possibility,” said Garcia-Allen.
Hoover noted that if the $800,000 in additional funding were secured, the amount that the borough would need to borrow would be reduced to about $1.22 million. Even using very conservative estimates, parking revenues would be sufficient to cover the annual debt-service payments.
After all the residents’ questions were addressed, it was the council members' turn to discuss the project, setting the stage for the long-anticipated vote.
Peggy Ann Russell, the council vice president, who has long been opposed to the project, reiterated a few of her concerns.
“I know we're building for the future, but we're paying in the present,” Russell said.
Council member Bob Ketcham made a brief presentation focusing on the projected parking revenues and how they compare to the annual debt-service payments that the borough will be responsible for. Ketcham disagreed with the assessment that parking revenues would cover the costs of maintaining the parking garage.
“As I see it, we don't have the revenue to pay for this project through parking revenues,” Ketcham said.
He also said that, during his research about parking garages, he heard a few things over and over from sources outside of Oxford Borough. One thing he heard repeatedly is don’t build a parking structure that can't be easily converted to a new use if the need arises. Another thing he heard is don’t build capacity before the demand is there. Still another thing that he heard is that the membranes of the parking structure must be meticulously cared for to prevent water and salts from getting to the concrete because that can cause a lot of erosion in the structure.
After nearly three years of discussion and debate, it was finally time for the council members to vote on awarding the construction contract. The vote itself took place very quickly, with Lombardi, Hershey, Thompson and Hurtt all voting to approve the motion, while Russell, Ketcham, and Amanda Birdwell voted against it.
There was applause after the vote, but certainly others in the room were unhappy with the council's decision. Once the meeting concluded an hour later, more than one person in attendance expressed the relief that a decision had been made—finally—and the borough can now move forward.
Lombardi, who just became council president in January, said that she initially had a lot of concerns about the costs of the project, but during the process of working with the professionals that the borough retained, she became convinced of the need for the project, as well as the borough's ability to pay for it without burdening taxpayers. The borough has been extremely successful in securing funding for the parking garage, and will be paying dimes on the dollar for a major economic development project.
The new borough hall often gets overlooked, but Oxford badly needs a new home for its administrative offices, and it would cost between $3 million and $4 million to build one in the downtown. Because of the grants that have been secured, the borough will get a parking garage and a borough hall for less than that.
“This is probably one of the biggest things that we’ve done in Oxford,” Hershey said after the meeting. “The borough is already moving forward, but this will help us continue to move forward.”
Hershey said that there will certainly be some inconveniences during the construction phase of the project, which is expected to take about 11 months, but those who will be most affected by the construction will also be the ones who will benefit the most once the project is complete.
Mayor Lorraine Bell didn’t have a vote on the issue, but she has long supported the project because of the benefits it will bring to the town. She explained that she grew up in Oxford, and she has loved watching the town grow, but the parking issue has been a problem for a long time.
“We are finally addressing that need,” Bell said.
She added that she believes the parking garage will boost economic development in town, so that the commercial district will once again thrive as it once did.
Numerous people expressed hope that, now that a decision about the parking garage has been made, everyone can start pulling together again.
Lombardi said that she has been very concerned about the deep divisions in the community and on council that have developed as a result of the much-debated project.
“I’m looking foward to us working together on something positive,” she said.
Randy Grace, a business owner in town, expressed a similar sentiment during the final public session of the evening. He thanked the borough council members who supported the parking garage project, and said that he hopes that, now that a decision has been made and the garage will be built, there will once again be more unity and less rancor.
“Let’s get back to to being one town, one community, one Oxford,” he said.