Both on the streets and in the chambers of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, members of Asheville Food and Beverage United showed up Sept. 6 to advocate for affordable parking. The group of local food service employees held a rally outside the county courthouse prior to making their case before the board during public comment.
Jen Hampton, the campaign’s lead organizer, presented commissioners with a petition signed by over 2,100 people in support of free or low-cost parking for downtown workers. “We’ve been talking to workers about our Fair Deal campaign, which is fighting for living wages, paid sick days and better scheduling practices,” she explained. “And in doing that, talking to workers, we discovered that while those issues are super important, they’re also very upset about the parking issue.”
Four supporters of the petition, including Michael Schlotz, spoke about their personal experiences parking and working downtown. Over the past year, he said, parking fees have cost his household between 7% and 10% of its gross annual income. Other commenters brought up the time it takes to find parking and safety concerns for those who park outside downtown and walk in to work to avoid fees.
During a briefing of the board earlier Sept. 6, Tim Love, Buncombe’s director of economic development and governmental relations, presented a recommendation to address those workers’ concerns. The county may offer reduced monthly parking passes in its Coxe Avenue parking deck, cutting the monthly cost to rent a space in that garage from $85 to $40 for employees who work within about a mile of Pack Square.
The Coxe deck has a total of 664 spaces, 185 of which are currently leased monthly at the $85 rate. Love proposed making 150 additional spaces available at the reduced rate to downtown employees earning less than 80% of the area median income ($45,000 per year for a one-person household or $64,250 for a family of four). While the lower rates would only be available at the Coxe deck to start, he said, a similar plan could be extended to additional decks in the future.
The passes would be managed by Preferred Parking, the vendor that currently oversees parking garage operations for the county. Employees or employers would be able to purchase monthly passes through an online application process. Applicants would need to provide proof of downtown employment and income and would need to recertify every 12 months. Love said the program could be implemented as early as the fall.
Buncombe currently loses money on the Coxe deck, Love added: The county pays about $1.27 million per year in debt service on the garage but only brings in around $400,000 in revenue. He said the affordable parking program could boost annual revenue by up to $72,000 due to the increased number of monthly leases available.
“If you’re thinking about strategies for how to increase utilization, one strategy is rightfully to lower the rate. That’s a natural supply-and-demand approach,” Love said. “It makes sense from that standpoint — from a utilization perspective — or if you’re looking to benefit those that are low in income.”
Board Chair Brownie Newman, while in favor of reduced-rate parking, said he would like to explore other options as well. He suggested offering lower rates for parking in the upper and middle levels of the parking deck to both reduce the cost for downtown employees and keep spaces on the lower levels accessible for short-term parking. He advocated for hearing more community input before voting on the rate change.
“We are hearing from the community loud and clear that that’s a need,” said Newman of affordable parking. “We think that there’s some very good ideas coming forward, but we would really like to hear from those who are directly affected by this before we make final decisions.”
In a statement provided to Xpress after the meeting, Asheville Food and Beverage United described the proposal as “an important step in our fight for better parking.” However, the group still has some concerns about the exact amount of the price reduction and what workers would be able to purchase a reduced-price pass.
“The commissioners listened to [our] stories, and their willingness to come to the table with a policy proposal so quickly is encouraging,” the group’s statement read. “It’s proof that when workers in Asheville organize to demand change, people in power have to listen.”