ELLIJAY, Ga. – More than just citizens living inside the city limits, people from East Ellijay and all over Gilmer County outside of either city’s limits have been voicing opinions and concerns over the loss of parking on the square and down River Street.
This Monday, October 15, 2021, will see the Ellijay City Council hear the proposal from a representative of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and has an agenda item to take action on the subject. The agenda lists this as “Downtown Parking Elimination Test.” The idea is to test how the area will respond without parking through Light Up Ellijay in December. The Mayor’s Report in the city council notes that this will eliminate parking “on the roundabout and River Street.”
Discussion has risen from the DDA, but has found stark opposition from certain members of the public. From very specific concerns of elderly and handicapped people looking to keep the close by parking for places like the Cantaberry Restaurant, Blue Ridge Olive Oil Company, Ellijay Wood Fired Pizza, River Street Tavern, and others to general concerns about eliminating any parking in such a busy area of the city.
Those speaking in favor of the elimination have quoted public safety concerns and traffic flow. Accidents have occurred in the area and comments have been made referencing these incidents when someone may pull out or back out into traffic. Others have complained about how difficult it is to back out of the lots on the square.
Discussions have also come from some to convert the roundabout parking into all handicapped parking spaces and marking off several spots to allow for van unloading from the sides for wheelchair users.
The Downtown Square already has posted speed limits signs along River Street and the city has also put up flashing signs in the past warning drivers of their speed as they cross the bridge on River Street.
Eighteen parking spots isn’t a large number compared to the lot sizes like the one behind Dalton State College or the one behind the courthouse next to the Tabor House, but the main push to keep the spots has focused on the needs for closer parking for older people. Four years ago, in 2016, research was shown in the Gilmer Board of Commissioners meetings as the county was losing its hospital proving Gilmer had 25% of its population as 65 or older. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, research has proven that the consistent occupancy of Gilmer County is increasing from more and more people moving here along with more and more tourists visiting.
The question of the day and the question behind the parking spots on the roundabout and down River Street, ultimately, has very little to do with parking, but has everything to do with traffic and congestion. Some downtown business owners are also pushing to keep the roadside parking to allow for older citizens to have easier access, but also to allow for those who may see an open spot and are only looking to quickly get in and out of one store instead of touring the downtown area.
Officials have emphasized that the action taken, if approved, is only a test run. Discussion has continued to run rampant among how the city would block off the spots, what kind of image it gives to visitors, what it would do to locals, how it would affect businesses, how it will change the look and feel of the downtown area. Discussion will continue on Monday, October 18, 2021, at 5:30 when the City of Ellijay enters its workshop right before the 6:00 p.m. meeting.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Blue Ridge City Council and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) held a joint called meeting on Monday to discuss the DDA’s plans and parking predominately.
DDA Chairman Cesar Martinez addressed the working relationship between the two groups. He stressed that they both need to be together on issues like parking, economic development, or signage. He asked for the city to include the DDA in conversations about projects that fall under their authority.
“We can’t be two separate organizations going after the same thing. We need to be together. If it’s a project that we’re working on with the city, then we need to be involved in that,” Martinez explained.
Councilmember Nathan Fitts, who’s Vice Chairman and on the city council, added he’s previously told his peers that they need to let the DDA “do their job and be involved.” He cited that some people left the DDA because of a lack of communication between the two organizations.
Later in the meeting, Mayor Donna Whitener asked if the council had been asked for anything aside parking. Martinez confirmed that they had not been. The DDA must run decisions by the council before final decisions are made.
“More than anything else in our relationship going forward, we need to be thinking about each other and how those conversations are built,” Martinez ended.
The DDA has a total revenue of $147,889.18 with two expenditures in October where were the paving and striping of the parking lot behind the co-op. After paying $29,993.75, the DDA had a final balance of $117,895.43. Blue Ridge funded the DDA around six months ago giving them paid parking revenue and one percent of the hotel/motel tax. The hotel/motel tax provided $29,584.87 and parking accounted for $118,304.31.
The DDA design committee hopes to designate parking and place wayfinding signage throughout the community as part of the phase 1 planning.
Martinez, who’s serving as temporary parking director, began the discussion and stated the biggest issue they’re trying to address was clearly identifying lots throughout Blue Ridge. The design committee and Director Nichole Potzauf presented signage options during the meeting. The second accomplishment was the paving and striping of the city lot by TrueFit. However, Blue Ridge still needs more parking, according to Martinez.
The new garage with around 200 spaces should be open this spring.
“There’s more parking that’s going to be needed as the city continues to grow and we really have to turn our vision toward what our needs are going to be two years, five years, ten years down the road,” Martinez remarked. “In terms of parking, I don’t think we can afford not to spend money on it.”
Fitts called it an “urgent matter” that the city has needed to address for ten years and that some on the council aren’t as fervently supporting as before.
Councilmember Mike Panter asked, “Who’s it an issue for? Is it an issue for the 1,200 citizens who live in the city in a 2.3-mile radius that can walk to town or is it an issue for our tourists that are coming into town?”
Laughing Councilmember Rhonda Haight expressed “A, B, and C.” Martinez explained that all parties are equally important, and the tourists help keep the tax rate low.
Panter agreed no one group was more important, but he didn’t believe a hundred of their effort and revenue should go toward parking.
Fitts and Haight jumped in about parking generating its own revenue and can pay for itself. According to Haight, the city’s making $16,000 to $20,000 a month in parking.
“You go downtown at 9 o’clock or 15 till 9 during the week, most of the parking spots that are full are business owners or their employees. So, you hear them complaining about parking, but they’re parking in front of their own business that’s a problem,” Panter stated. “You’ve got 1,200 citizens who live within walking distance and they’re saying all the time, my phone’s blowing up. They’re calling me all the time saying ‘why is the focus on parking? Why is it not on water or different infrastructure?’”
Haight explained they’ve found alternative areas for parking, but the council needs to pursue those options. She added a meter box could be placed on the main street where customers would park, and city residents wouldn’t have to pay.
Martinez commented, “The way to handle that is to put paid parking in downtown and also make sure that alternative parking for the store owners and employees can park at for free.”
However, alternative spaces need to be created before they can put paid parking in downtown. If paid parking meters are used downtown, they might feature the first hour or 30 minutes free. Not everyone’s in favor of meters. Martinez stressed the need for having options for the business owners before plowing ahead with downtown. The DDA and city also need to consider if they are going to purchase a land lot for parking. The paid lots haven’t generated enough revenue yet to purchase land.
In 2018, when the city first leased the temple property for parking, they made $22,000. DDA and Blue Ridge would have to work together to move ahead with parking.
“It’s time either this council take responsibility and do something, or you just tell the townspeople, it’s your problem,” Haight asserted.
The idea of telling business owners and employees to park at city hall was floated to the room. Haight commented that no one will voluntarily move to city hall unless they are properly motivated.
Fitts brought up that the property’s scarce in downtown Blue Ridge and if they wait much longer opportunities will be lost. Once that happens, a parking garage would be the remaining route for the council.
After the joint meeting ended, the DDA passed a resolution for the Georgia Cities Foundation loan to benefit Mountain Hospitality Group.