Ellijay City Council votes on roundabout parking elimination

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City hall discusses parking elimination

GILMER, Ga. — The Ellijay City Council met Oct. 18 to make a decision regarding the proposed test period for closure of parking on the downtown roundabout. Reese Sanford spoke for the Downtown Development Authority, and gave the council the DDA’s new recommendation. 

Sanford addressed the council saying, “As requested at the downtown traffic workshops [that] city hall had this summer, the DDA’s been doing due diligence on the roundabout parking.” Sanford noted that the DDA recommendation is a product of consultation with the joint development authority, the police department, the city council, and local business owners. 

He explained that the consideration first arose as a way to improve public safety in the downtown area, citing three incidents on the roundabout in the last year: “Third party reports have suggested that the traffic congestion downtown is a long term business risk. The easiest solution is to move parking away from traffic and away from the pedestrians.” He also mentioned that the DDA has already requested more signs to direct visitors to safer parking locations, like behind Dalton State College. However, when he went to check, Sanford says, “Of 230 [parking spots], only 32 were in use. If we can guide cars to this lot, we can alleviate a lot of our issues.” 

The DDA, as Sanford brings up, had previously published a recommendation to shut down all roundabout parking; however, “as a result of the September town hall, we have revised our original proposal … and this is the result of the community input we received at this meeting.” Sanford then explained the revised proposal: “We will not touch the nine spaces, which includes the one handicap space, on the north side of the roundabout … Our revised proposal is to barricade parking on the nine spaces on the south side of the roundabout, and the parallel spaces on River St., just after River Street Tavern. The businesses in these areas are supportive of it, and are very interested in seeing what they can find in the trial period.” 

Sanford noted that parking is not being reduced, only reallocated. He says the period might even increase business activity, suggesting that outdoor dining, artists, or walking tours could occupy the new space: “If this test period goes well, and leads to a desire for a long term change, paving over the spaces is not the only solution.” 

Sanford finished, “We are proposing a test period from Oct. 23 to Jan. 2. The spaces will be blocked off 7 days per week.” He says then the DDA will host another town hall, and convene to settle on a final opinion to present to the city council. 

After his presentation, the council members took the opportunity to raise their concerns. Kathryn Lancey spoke first, wondering why the DDA revised their original proposal. Sanford responded, “Why force an experiment on some people, when there’s others that are offering their space?”

Tom Crawford brought up the community saying, “I’m kind of astonished that you’re making a recommendation after the town hall was a resounding ‘no.’” Sanford replied by mentioning that not all citizens go to town halls and the businesses are willing, but Crawford continued: “If you’re gonna do a test period … why on God’s earth do it at the busiest season of the year?” Both Sanford and the council members discussed these concerns, but ultimately decided to close parking. 

When time to vote on the issue, Kevin Pritchitt asked to amend, saying, “I make a motion to [limit the] downtown parking elimination test for River St. only.” The motion was unanimously passed, and the parking spaces on River St. are planned for closure beginning Oct 23. 

City of Ellijay to discuss removal of downtown parking Monday

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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.

parkingThis 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.

parkingThe 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.

Management of City Parking will not go out to bid

City Council, Featured News, Featured Stories
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Tempers flared again as Blue Ridge City Council voted on whether it would be in the City’s best interest to put the management of municipal parking out to bid.

In a second Special Called Meeting held on Friday, May 21, 2021, Council Member Nathan Fitts proposed that the City release Executive Parking Systems (EPS) from their current contract managing the City’s parking and put the duties of parking management out to bid.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

Payment kiosk installed by EPS for 24/7 collections.

Fitts stated his reasoning for his proposal was that by not placing the service out to bid there was a look of impropriety in allowing the contract to continue without any competition and that EPS was in violation of the terms that had been agreed upon.

“The fact that this agreement only applied to special events is further confirmed by the audio of the City Council meeting in October 2019 when the council voted on this issue,” Fitts said, explaining the breach of contract.

According to Fitts the agreement with EPS was for the company to handle Special Events parking only, not day to day collections that the company is currently providing.

Council Member Rhonda Haight played audio clips from a previous meeting between City Council and the Downtown Development Authority where Fitts does clarify that EPS would be used for Special Events only.

Fitts said that EPS continuing to collect money for parking that was not from Special Events was in fact illegal.

Fitts stated, “The council has a duty to the citizens to immediately stop these unauthorized funds that are being collected by Executive Parking.”

During discussion, fellow Council Member Mike Panter referred to an email sent by City Attorney James Balli that stated “In this instance, the parking contract is not required to be submitted to the sealed bid process”.

The current contract between the City of Blue Ridge and EPS states of parking that EPS will furnish duties “as needed or requested by the City” and that EPS would collect “20% of the Net Operating income from each event, which is the total income made per event minus EPS employee expenses”.

EPS had presented the City with an updated contract changing the wording of these two statements to duties furnished would be “24 hours a day/7 days a week/ 365 days a year” and collecting “25% of the Net Operating Income each month from all City Properties, which is the total income made per month per location”.

The updated contract, however, was never approved by council.

“I know what the contract says,” Mayor Donna Whitener expressed when questioned if she understood the contract,  “It says as needed and you all needed it.”

Fitts responded to Whitener saying that her opinion is invalid, “You have a conflict of interest because you sold them a piece of property. You’re in violation of the Charter.”

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Parking, Fannin County, City Council, Post 1, Harold Herdon, Post 2, Rhonda Haight, Post 3, Mike Panter, Post 4, Robbie Cornelius, Post 5, Nathan Fitts, Mayor, Donna Whitener, Attorney, James Balli, Executive Parking Systems, Shelli WoJohn, Bid, Process, Contract

EPS signage located in municipal parking off of Mountain Street.

Shelli Wojohn, General Counsel at Valet Vault & Executive Parking Systems, also spoke up saying, “An event is every time we operate as per stated in the contract.”

“So every day is an event in Blue Ridge?” Haight questioned WoJohn.

As the meeting began to unravel, Whitener tried to adjourn but Haight said adjournment would not take place since a motion had already been made and the Council was in the middle of a vote.

Cesar Martinez, Chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, was asked his opinion since he had been present throughout much of the discussions related to the City’s parking.

“In my opinion, and I am not a lawyer,” Martinez responded, “When we let them put the parking meter up in the city municipal lot that was under the request of the City. They were doing it as needed and requested by the City.”

Panter and Council Member Harold Herndon voted against putting the service out to bid.

“They’ve done a good job. There was a need. Income has been good,” Herndon explained his position, “I don’t think the City at this time of the year can afford a delay or holding up services for any length of time.” 

During fiscal year 2020 the City made $65,116.87 in revenues collected by EPS.

With two opposing votes (Panter and Herndon) and two in favor (Haight and Fitts), a tie breaking vote was cast by Mayor Whitener against bidding out parking management. Council Member Robbie Cornelius was not present for the meeting.

Haight went on record that she felt the Whitener’s vote was a direct conflict of interest due to a real estate transaction between the Mayor and EPS. 

Haight also stated of EPS continuing to collect revenues everyday and not just for Special Events, “Right now in my opinion they (EPS) are taking money that doesn’t belong to them and that’s theft.”

DDA and City Council discuss Blue Ridge’s parking situation

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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.

Councilmember and DDA Vice Chair Nathan Fitts

Councilmember and DDA Vice Chair Nathan Fitts

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.

Parking Discussion

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 looks to become more tourist friendly

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welcome center

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.

DDA Program Manager Darren Harper

Harper advocated for the necessity of some type of 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.

Mayor Jim Conley

Mayor Conley wasn’t sold on the idea of building a new welcome center.

“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.

The gravel lot is on a steep grade that must be taken into account.

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.”

welcome center

The area behind City Hall could become the new bathroom area or a place for picnic tables.

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.

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