By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
OXFORD – The Downtown Parking Commission was formed last year to address a problem many small towns wish for – a shortage of parking.
Despite having 1,188 public parking spaces in a 28-block area of downtown Oxford, finding a parking place can be a hunt. At rush hours that revolve around mealtimes and late-night bar hours, even four of the five city-owned lots near the Square may be full.
A parking study group worked several months last year, initially to determine whether a parking garage is needed, looking at somewhat larger university towns.
“Oxford is like Chapel Hill (N.C.) was 40 years ago – a small, quaint college town,” said Jeff Triplette, chairman of the recently appointed Downtown Parking Commission.
A formal study directed by a Georgia-based consultant identified weaknesses in the present system including poor signage and lighting in public lots, inconsistent enforcement and storefront parking spaces occupied by merchants and downtown residents. It also recommended consideration of a parking garage.
Mayor Pat Patterson is convinced a 300-slip structure is inevitable, especially if the vision for a nearly car-free Square materializes.
“You’ll never be able to close North and South Lamar, but you can close the area in front of Neilson’s and in front of Ajax and make it more pedestrian friendly,” Patterson said.
A taste of that future is planned for late April.
“They’re going to block off some parking spaces and put some planters in there to show people something of what it may be like as we move toward a mostly pedestrian Square,” said City Planner Tim Akers.
Initially, the commission’s efforts will focus on existing space.
“The first priority is managing the parking that we have now,” Triplette said.
Repaving, restriping and new lighting already have been approved for city-owned lots. Other proposed enhancements include better enforcement, longer enforcement hours and perhaps even technology that would map available spaces for smartphone users.
Free mid-day shuttles are planned for fall to run every 10 minutes between the University of Mississippi campus and the Square.
The commission will interview outside firms within weeks to implement other changes such as signage to help visitors find off-street parking, technology to charge for premium parking space and to enforce both payment and time limits.
Ron Hipp, who chaired the initial study group and is a current member of the commission, said the upcoming changes aren’t about raising funds for the city.
“It does not start with money. It started as a way to manage parking,” he said. “As it turns out, if you manage parking correctly, you create money. That revenue will be controlled by this commission … people from the community.
“It’s not an arm of government reaching into somebody’s pocket,” Hipp added. “That revenue will go back into improving everyone’s life. If we buy more surface lots or build a garage, it’ll benefit everyone.”
Public forums already have been part of the parking change process. More forums will likely be held before changes are implemented.
“Anytime people get a service for free, there are going to be questions when they have to start paying for it,” said commission member Jeff Alford.
One challenge as fees are levied for parking will be to control unauthorized use of private parking lots, most of which are owned by churches. Another will be accommodating jurors for the five courts that convene downtown.
Commission members and city officials are adamant about keeping any parking changes within the character that makes downtown Oxford so attractive to visitors and shoppers.
“We know we have something special, and we don’t want that something special spoiled by just looking at the revenue or looking at how to penalize drivers,” Triplette said. “Whoever we might bring in to help us manage this has to understand what it means in Oxford, Mississippi.”