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.
BLAIRSVILLE, Ga: Blairsville City Council and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Board contentiously debated the necessity of a tourism welcome center before deciding to move forward with public parking and bathroom planning.
The bathrooms and parking lot will be built on the Haralson property either behind City Hall or closer to the main street depending upon the survey. A gravel lot exists behind Michaelee’s Italian Life Caffe. Previously, the city and DDA had plans to pave the lot and most likely still will once they nail down a firm plan.
DDA Program Manager Darren Harper addressed the need for infrastructure in Blairsville, including public restrooms, parking, and potentially a welcome center.
He elaborated on downtown’s continued growth and the need for a center to direct tourists in the area.
“A lot of our income from the DDA comes directly from people outside this community, and anything we can do to encourage people to visit, spend their money, and go home is in everyone’s best interest,” Harper remarked.
He added that the board needed the city’s blessings and involvement, as well as a discussion of finances and expectations. According to Harper, the last infrastructure piece to go into downtown was Bob Head Street. Currently, business owners direct tourists to activities around Blairsville and Union County.
“There’s no one central place for them to get information about: ‘where can I take my kids, where can we go do this,’” Harper stated. “We have the Chamber up on the golf course, which is a great facility, but it’s extremely difficult to tell people how to get there.”
Mayor Jim Conley agreed that public restrooms and parking were necessary for the area, especially after COVID-19. However, he never heard mention of a welcome center until recently.
“I can’t see us giving up a lot of parking spaces for a building that really should be something that benefited the Chamber of Commerce,” stated DDA board member Paul Thompson. “I think the DDA needs to concentrate on the bathrooms that would be necessary in the right place and completing the parking lot. That’s what we initially were supposed to do was get the city’s money back to the property as best we could and develop parking and bathrooms.”
Chamber of Commerce President Steve Rowe mentioned the idea of placing a kiosk with information or small office next to the bathrooms for people to pick up information. He also believed the area offers an opportunity to create a pavilion/park area in the lot behind City Hall, along with the bathrooms.
Conley suggested using the DDA office for a welcome center, but some renovations would be necessary to separate the office space. Harper agreed it was doable but added that public restrooms need monitoring. He conjectured that a building that included the bathrooms and a welcome center would kill two birds with one stone.
DDA Board member Robert Rogers expressed that the lot behind City Hall wasn’t the best option for a welcome center. He preferred the lot next to old Pat Haralson law office, also known as the property Steve Cockerham was going to turn into condos until last year.
“I think that is something not just on the city to take on. I think that would be on the city and county to take on jointly as far as staffing it, the cost of it, and so on,” Rogers stated. “You need to be able to find it. We’ve got a beautiful welcome center now; you can’t find it, that’s the problem.”
He added it would need to be large enough to generate some income as well.
Before making any commitments, Rogers commented that they needed to know what’s possible. He spoke with surveyor Jason Henson who’s willing to draw up options for minimal cost. The DDA and city needed to consider existing sewer, power lines, and ADA accessibility for bathrooms.
Harper objected to another surveyor plan because they previously laid out the area. Rogers said the topographical area changed since the last layout. The previous survey pulled lot elevations from county GIS aerial flights, so a field run topo is necessary to entirely understand the situation.
Henson will draw up three different bathroom placements on the Haralson property; He will also address the parking lot. Previous bathroom plans included four stalls with ADA accessible stalls.
Rogers commented that the area behind City Hall might benefit from a pavilion and picnic tables. However, they should consider other sites for a welcome center.
“We also need some sort of budget limitations. We don’t need the tail wagging the dog,” DDA board member Paul Thompson echoed.
According to Conley, the DDA board has approximately $219,000 in its budget. However, if they chose to build a welcome center on the lot previously owned by Cockerham, they could absorb $225,000. The DDA hoped if the county agreed to participate, it would cut some of the cost. Conley expressed doubt that the county would participate. Harper pondered about tourism grant funding becoming available for projects such as a welcome center.
“If you want us to expand our scope, then you need to be prepared to help us pay, so it’s really up to y’all,” Thompson said to the council.
Rogers asked Chamber President Rowe if there was a need for another welcome center in Union County. Rowe expressed that there wasn’t, and a kiosk would fulfill the job.
“I feel like we need something with information for visitors and tourists who come to this area because I feel like I’m the information center a lot of times when people come in our store. I don’t mind it because they’re coming in our store,” DDA Board member June McEldowney explained. “A kiosk or welcome area, something that can direct people in a general area to facilitate our downtown area.”
Conley echoed again the Harper’s office would be the ideal area for a welcome center. For now, it appears the idea of a downtown welcome center is tabled.
The new bathrooms and parking lot surveys should be completed within 30 days.