Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Commissioner floats free downtown parking amid CF Bridge preservation project

One commissioner is suggesting the county offer free parking in THE New Hanover County-owned parking deck on Second Street, adjacent to the main library, as bridge repairs take place over the next four months. The goal is to help boost downtown businesses that may be affected by consumer decrease due to do increased congestion across the town. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Last week, a batch of walk-on motions were brought forth by Dane Scalise at the commissioners’ meeting, meaning the items weren’t approved to be on the agenda ahead of its planning but were introduced at the end.

READ MORE: CF Memorial Bridge repair work off to rainy start, delayed due to weather

ALSO: Wilmington intersections to close during bridge preservation

One focused on offering free parking in downtown’s county-owned spots as the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge undergoes at least four months of repairs

“As we have discussed many times, I’m severely concerned about how this is going to impact the flow of traffic in our community — how people are going to be able to get to their jobs, how they’re going to be able to get to the hospital, how they’re going to be able to get to the services and other businesses that they utilize,” Scalise told his fellow New Hanover County commissioners.

The preservation project, $7.1 million in construction funded by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, will close two eastbound lanes into Wilmington starting Monday, Jan. 29, through March 31, and westbound lanes out of Wilmington, April 8 through May or June. It will affect upward of 50,000 drivers that cross the bridge daily, many of whom will be detoured to the Isabel Holmes Bridge or I-140. Trucks trying to reach the ports will not be able to take Third Street downtown and must travel around town via Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway to South College Road instead.

Scalise expressed concern particularly on the aftereffects the closure will have on downtown businesses. The bridges flank either side of the riverfront and are two of the main points of entry to downtown from outside New Hanover County.

“We have an opportunity to help ameliorate this problem,” he said.

He asked the county to suspend collection of its hourly parking in county-owned spaces downtown during the bridge repair work. Some of the spaces are reserved for passholders and those contracts would remain in place, Scalise clarified.

County staff would not answer Port City Daily’s question regarding the exact number of spaces New Hanover County owns downtown, but referred to the meeting held last Monday, Jan. 22. The amount of spaces were not divulged there, either, and Scalise was unsure of the exact total, upon PCD reaching out.

He confirmed county-owned parking is located at the New Hanover County Main Library parking deck on Second Street, also slated for updates as part of Project Grace construction, now underway.

“Some of the parking spots are long-term leases,” Scalise told PCD. “My notion pertained only to hourly parking spots.”

He hopes to assess the full amount of available hourly spaces at the first February commissioners’ meeting, when county staff will have looked into it further.

“It’s an intriguing idea, for sure,” Commissioner Rob Zapple retorted to Scalise last week. “But I sure would like to see what the financial impact is and what that means to us.”

Scalise estimated it would cost the county around $24,000 a month, according to numbers Chief Financial Officer Eric Credle pulled ahead of time. As well, Scalise suggested the City of Wilmington consider the same action.

According to city spokesperson Lauren Edwards, Wilmington oversees 4,400 public parking spaces downtown, including about 1,000 on-street metered spaces, five parking decks, and two surface lots. No conversations about Scalise’s free parking idea happened with city staff ahead of his suggestion, city spokesperson Jerod Patterson confirmed.

“Were the city to suspend payments for public parking from February through June, it would result in approximately $2.4 million in lost parking revenue,” Patterson informed PCD last week.

By comparison County Manager Chris Coudriet estimated to commissioners it would cost New Hanover County roughly $125,000 in revenue. 

Zapple suggested, instead, the county put the money toward something that would expedite construction on the bridge. He brought up potential county funding for a third shift, citing contractors on the bridge are working only 16 hours a day, seven days a week, instead of 24/7. 

“We have the potential, reducing the amount of time by as much as a third or more because you do away with the startup and shutdown process of the work that’s going ahead,” Zapple said. “I don’t quite understand how freeing up the parking, other than just being a gesture, could actually help speed up the construction process.”

Chad Kimes, NCDOT division 3 engineer, told media and local leaders at a press conference last week the crew is under an aggressive schedule. Kimes said he considers it dangerous for workers to set stringers — part of the bridge rehabilitation — in the middle of the night. He also denied work would not be done otherwise during hours that physical labor isn’t conducted on the bridge.

“We have several crews that will be working, basically, around the clock,” Kimes said. “There are things going on at night that you might not see going on in the bridge. … It’s going to come down to safety and I can’t make that clear enough: It’s got to be safe. If it’s safe, I assure you, if I can get off of that bridge. I’ll be off that bridge and we’ll be done.”

Scalise countered Zapple’s suggestion to support a third shift. He places it as an NCDOT responsibility — not the county’s.

“Neither City of Wilmington nor the county can control what happens with DOT’s bridge repairs, but we can at least explore ideas like this [free parking],” Scalise said to PCD.

It’s about looking after residents who work and spend locally, he added.

“I’m thinking of the shops, I’m thinking of the restaurants that are going to be hurt by people that are going to say, ‘It’s not worth me coming downtown because the bridge repair is going on,’” Scalise repeated in the commissioners’ meeting. “Let’s lead on this issue. We’re going to make parking freely available for the people of New Hanover County and downtown, and look to our partners in the city to do the same.”

The city utilizes its $2.4 million in parking revenue to pay for its parking program, managed by Pivot. This includes facility maintenance, parking deck operations, security operations, customer service, and enforcement, as well as the salaries of 35 contracted staff. 

“The parking program would need to lay off parking staff and reduce services since it would no longer be receiving the revenue that pays for them,” Edwards added.

More importantly, Edwards surmised that parking fees likely would need to increase down the road to help the city recoup losses. Plus, the city staff have estimated it could actually inhibit foot traffic to businesses, as on-street meters have hourly parameters, such as two-hour limits. 

Free parking would mean less turnover and possibly “result in less on-street parking availability for customer activity,” Edwards explained.

“If an idea isn’t feasible, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth exploring,” Scalise said, upon PCD sharing the city’s concerns. “Regardless, I don’t serve on that body and will leave it to COW council and staff to determine if this idea is fiscally responsible and/or viable. They’re smart people. I’m sure they’ll make the right decision.”

No city council member, nor the mayor, responded to Port City Daily for insight or feedback on Scalise’s suggestion. Aside from Zapple, other county commissioners were also hesitant to commit without more information.

Vice Chair LeAnn Pierce had questions as to whether the county had done anything similar before. Coudriet confirmed it provided free parking in the deck during the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Tournament held in Wilmington in 2017.

“There was a period of four or five days through the course of that tournament that the county did not collect on the hourly rate, so there’s precedent,” he said.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield commended Scalise’s idea. However, he was more concerned about how it would affect the county’s budget. Sales taxes have come in a bit lower than projected, he revealed, and based on lowering taxes last year and the goal to approach another decrease during the next budget cycle, he worried it wouldn’t work.

“The numbers are definitely as tight as I’ve ever seen them and we can’t afford to miss any at all,” Barfield said. 

PCD asked the county for context on the commissioner’s statements, per how much sales taxes are down, but it did not provide an answer. 

When prompting Scalise about how the county would make up the loss in revenue elsewhere, and whether it would still be passed on to the taxpayer in another form,  he said finding ways to “cut government spending” is a deep-rooted concern. It’s something he said he’s committed to continuously work toward.

“In theory, yes, anytime you lose revenue, you’ve got to make a cut elsewhere,” Scalise said. “I’m sure there are some savings to be had in our budget to allow for this lost revenue. I absolutely will not allow this parking relief to result in a tax increase for the citizens.”

Zapple also brought up the fact the free parking idea was the second surprise motion at the meeting (the first had commissioners’ vote on a resolution against the toll, which passed 3-2). Zapple called the pattern worrisome — one that gave him “heartburn” as it didn’t receive full staff consideration or allow commissioners to hear other points of view. 

“I don’t understand what the full ramifications are … what it means budget-wise,” he said. “I’m disturbed by this. All of a sudden, we’ve had two issues here that walked on at the last second.”

Zapple preferred his full consideration come with all information available, he said. He asked Sara Warmuth, the county facilities director, to look into an analysis of free parking measures downtown during the bridge repair.

“We also have a lot of other working parts with Project Grace going on and the use of that by our contractors, and I don’t know how it would positively or negatively affect that,” Zapple said.

Pierce, who stated she wasn’t against free parking, agreed she wanted to dig a bit deeper into it before voting.

Chair Bill Rivenbark suggested taking up the issue at the next commissioner meeting, Feb. 5, since the bridge work wouldn’t begin for another few days. It gets underway Monday, Jan. 29, 7 p.m.

Scalise asked for the motion to stand and for the record to show it wasn’t seconded.

Spokesperson Alex Riley confirmed the item will be placed on the agenda of the next commissioners’ meeting. The board has an agenda review slated to take place Thursday, Feb, 1, ahead of Monday’s meeting.

“I’m just trying to come up with ideas and ways to help the people of our community during a time I know is going to be very challenging,” Scalise said to PCD. “I love downtown Wilmington and want to make sure that the shops and restaurants there get all the support they can get over the next few months. I’ve got some other ideas for how to support downtown Wilmington that I’ll be sharing before too long.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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