By Brooke Dougherty
Providing safe and affordable parking for lower-income workers was top of mind for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners as its members unanimously voted Nov. 1 to approve a reduced-price parking program. The initiative will make 150 spaces in the county’s Coxe Avenue garage available to low-income downtown employees at $40 per month — less than half the current $85 monthly rate — by the end of the year.
The vote marked a victory for Asheville Food and Beverage United, a group of local food service employees who have lobbied the board on parking. As previously reported by Xpress, the group’s members held a rally outside the commissioners’ chambers Sept. 6 and shared a petition with over 2,100 signatures in support of parking affordability.
Jen Hampton, AFBU co-chair, thanked commissioners for listening to the group’s concerns about how the cost of parking has affected their lives. “If the [affordable parking program] passes, that would cut down on the costs for a lot of workers,” she explained. “[Workers] are really excited to know that there are people in places of power that are not only willing to listen to us, but to actually take real-life actions to make our lives better.”
Fellow AFBU member Carly Schwartz emphasized that the program would have benefits beyond the financial for people who park and work downtown. Knowing she had a designated affordable parking space, she said, would alleviate the stress of circling downtown in search of a suitable spot. She also said workers would feel safer by being able to park in a well-lit area closer to their jobs.
At the recommendation of county staff, the program’s spaces will be awarded by lottery. Tim Love, Buncombe’s director of economic development and governmental relations, said that approach would be more equitable and give more people a chance at receiving a space.
Love also noted security concerns members of the public had raised through surveys about the program. In response, he said garage attendants would be available for four extra hours each weekday, with the Coxe Avenue facility staffed from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. He also said staffing would be increased to 24/7 when more employees can be hired.
Board Chair Brownie Newman voiced approval of the program and noted how important the workforce is to downtown’s atmosphere. He said downtown business was a vital part of the local economy that wouldn’t be possible without employees who show up and work hard.
If the program goes well, Newman said the board would consider offering further affordable parking at other Buncombe facilities. The county oversees nearly 1,700 downtown parking spaces across two garages and seven surface lots.
Newman added that he hopes local businesses will pay to cover parking for workers who qualify for the county’s program. Over the course of a year, he pointed out, a reduced-price parking space would still cost an employee almost $500. “It’d be great if businesses who are supportive end up actively participating in a robust way and don’t put that cost on their workers,” he said.
Commissioner Al Whitesides agreed with Newman that the program would be a boon for the county’s workforce and said the safety of workers remains a top priority. “It might appear to some that we’re losing money [on the program], but we’re not, because it’s the least we can do for the people who work downtown,” Whitesides said.
(Staff projections actually indicate that the program would increase Buncombe’s parking revenue by $72,000 annually. The county would still spend roughly $820,000 more per year on debt service for the Coxe Avenue garage than it collects in revenue.)
Hampton with the AFBU said her group would continue to work with the county to address not just parking, but also transit and affordable housing solutions. “The costs are really increasing all the time, as you know, for housing and just to live and work in Asheville. Our worker pool is dwindling fast,” she said. “So, if we can address these issues together, I think that it would not only benefit workers but the community at large.”
“When we work together to find solutions to problems, I think that goes a long way to building community solidarity,” Hampton added. “For me, that really is the essence of Asheville.”