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Oxford residents voice concerns over proposed downtown parking ordinance

The future of parking at the Downtown Square has been a key topic of discussion this year with the construction of the new parking garage taking place.

The garage is inching closer to completion, with an anticipated open date in late September.

During Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting, a second reading of the proposed ordinance took place. The intent is amending the current parking ordinance and adding Section 553, which includes parking permits for off-street parking facilities around the Square.

With the second reading of any proposed ordinance change or new law comes a public hearing for concerned citizens to speak in favor of or against it. There were not many in attendance inside the City Hall courtroom, but a few people did speak out, including former Oxford mayor and current owner of Square Books Richard Howorth.

The biggest concern with the proposed ordinance change among those who spoke revolved around making sure those who work and spend the most hours on the Square are given a fair opportunity to find free parking, or to afford a reasonably priced parking permit.

The Lyric’s general manager, Lindsay Dillon-Maginnis, talked to the Board about potentially making exceptions, or discounts, for those who own property on the Square or those who work at business and restaurants on the Square making minimum wage.

“It is my understanding the right permit that they could apply for would cost them over 17 hours of work if they’re making less than minimum wage, or $7.25 an hour, to be able to afford the $100 permit that is available for those people to purchase,” Maginnis said.

The permit Maginnis referenced is the proposed all-access premium permit that is valid from Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to midnight. There is also an all-access select permit that would run $70 a month, but is valid in five fewer designated areas than the premium permit.

Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill explained the original goal was to provide as many free spaces as possible, but an initial survey revealed around 900 people worked in the downtown area and they did not have that many free parking spaces at the time of the survey. She also noted there would be 460 free parking spaces in the downtown area, which is an increase of 114 spaces from the current number.

The parking garage is expected to provide 333 free spaces. The first floor will be available for permits, while the second through fourth floors will offer free spaces. The other 127 free spaces will be located at the Oxford Park Commission lot next to the water tower. The OPC lot is expected to be the only free parking lot, once a parking ordinance is voted in by the fall.

“We want to provide the most free spots that we can provide,” Tannehill said. “That was my goal in the beginning. The people who are in the service industry, that are making Oxford the tourism town that it is, that is not gone unnoticed by anyone. We have to have one pass that is equal for everyone. We have to provide everyone an equal opportunity to purchase the pass at the same price.”

Throughout the process, the Downtown Parking Commission has stated their intention to take a year to process and analyze behavior habits of motorist once the revenue model is enacted. That period would allow them to determine what is, or is not, working and to make changes as they see fit.

Will Lewis, of Neilson’s department store, and Howorth spoke of not taking the full year to determine if things are working or not. They also mentioned the intentions of the Oxford residents if a revenue model such as the one proposed is voted into law.

“Most people are telling me they will do everything they can to avoid parking on the Square and try to find (free) parking spaces,” Howorth said. “They just refuse to pay and I’m just kind of worried about those people and I’m worried that there won’t be a place for some of those people. I’m worried about the consumers.”

Howorth asked Downtown Parking Commission member Mike Mitchell if the commission had considered the possibility of lowering the parking rate and freeing up spaces on Saturdays, when law offices and other government offices are closed around the downtown area. Mitchell noted the commission had “a healthy discussion” regarding that matter, but ultimately they agreed upon the revenue model that is being considered by the Board.

A third reading and subsequent vote on the ordinance is anticipated to take place during the Board’s Sept. 3 meeting.