A group of Old Town Bluffton business and property owners have an idea they think will go a long way toward solving the historic district’s notorious problem with a lack of parking.
The group — property owner Frank Coburn, real estate agent Wayne McDonald, and Bluffton BBQ proprietor and former Bluffton town councilman Ted Huffman — says they want to work with the town government to build a large parking lot adjacent to the Promenade.
But they say town leaders have blown them off without proper consideration and stifled public input on the idea, which involves the town buying a roughly 3-acre parcel of undeveloped land owned by Coburn at a price of about $2.8 million.
That land — a rectangular plot with room for about 250 parking spaces — would then be leased to a parking lot management company for ten years, according to the group’s business plan.
Revenue generated by that lease would flow back to the town, allowing the town to recoup its investment before the ten-year lease term is up, according to the plan.
After the lease expires, the town, which would own the property, could do whatever it wants with the parcel, McDonald said.
Giving the town the opportunity to control future development on the parcel would help avoid the construction of more homes, shops and restaurants — which could exacerbate parking problems, the group says.
“We did a year and a half of homework on this,” McDonald said. “And to me it’s the perfect solution” for Old Town’s parking woes.
But, he said, “We’ve been ignored. (Town leaders) did not hear us.”
Mayor Lisa Sulka disagrees.
“We didn’t just put it aside,” she said of the group’s proposal.
Through conversations with town staff and council members, several problems with the proposal emerged, Sulka said
The first is cost.
“We get these proposals a lot from landowners,” Sulka said. “A lot of times they don’t make it to the light of day because it doesn’t fit into our budget or our strategic plans.”
She said town leaders “feel like we can find other (parking) solutions that are far less expensive.”
The town is currently working toward adding about 75 new on-street parking spots along Dr. Mellichamp Drive just north of the Promenade, agreements with local churches to make their lots publicly accessible, and sidewalk projects to make neighborhoods around the Old Town more walkable, Sulka said.
The Farmers Market of Bluffton recently added trolley service to shuttle visitors from Old Town to a satellite lot.
But Huffman said he doesn’t think that is enough.
“The town doesn’t have a long-term vision on parking,” he said. “This piecemeal stuff isn’t adequate.”
Sulka said her other concern with the group’s proposal is a philosophical one.
“My personal thought is that we should never do anything that would charge our citizens to park,” she said. “I’ve always been adamantly against metered parking and a parking garage — I really believe that we need to keep parking free.”
Huffman said, “I don’t have any problem with paid parking, but that’s just me.”
“We pay for parking one way or the other — we really pay for it if there isn’t any,” he said, referring to the cost of lost business from customers who can’t find parking near Old Town shops and restaurants.
Regardless of concerns about the proposal, Huffman said, “The fact that (town leaders) unilaterally deemed it unworthy of the public’s input is wrong to me.”
“We didn’t need (the town) to come up with the money (to purchase Coburn’s land) in two days,” he said. “We just wanted to start the conversation.”
Huffman and other Old Town business owners decided to publicly start that conversation on their own.
The Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum on the proposal and parking issues in general Monday.
Many of the roughly 30 attendees were Old Town business or property owners. No elected officials were present.
Virtually all in attendance indicated that they’ve experienced problems with parking, and many supported some type of paid parking option.
A handful of forum participants said they planned to bring up parking issues during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s Bluffton town council meeting.