Post office lot closure proves problematic

By Tom Joyce

January 31, 2014

The closing of a heavily used downtown Mount Airy parking lot owned by the U.S. Postal Service is posing problems for tourists and forcing a local farmers market to find a new home.

That lot next door to the Mount Airy Post Office — where many a fresh tomato was sold during the growing season and recreational and other vehicles have been accommodated, especially during festivals, is now blocked. Concrete barriers and the obligatory yellow tape are preventing any encroachment.

The lot closure earlier this month, which caught city government and tourism officials off-guard, occurred for a simple reason, according to a postal representative.

“It is a money issue,” said Monica M. Coachman of the U.S. Postal Service’s corporate communications office for its Greensboro and Mid-Carolinas districts. The Greensboro District oversees the Mount Airy Post Office.

After recognizing that repairs were needed to the parking lot, to fix potholes and “irregularities” there that were viewed as safety concerns, plans were made to repave the site, Coachman said.

“Although funding was originally approved in October 2013 to resurface the lot, due to USPS’s financial condition and the determination that it was not an essential item, the project was cancelled,” she added.

The key point in this decision is a belief by postal officials that other parking spaces near the South Main Street post office, including on-street ones, are adequate to serve patrons. And it isn’t obligated to provide parking for the public at large.

“An evaluation of the facility determined that the lot is used mostly by the general public for tourists, and not necessarily for postal patrons,” Coachman said. “That’s our primary concern,” she added of the latter.

“Concrete barriers were placed at the entrance to prevent public use and eliminate safety concerns.”

City Manager Barbara Jones, whose office is in the Municipal Building right across the street from the parking lot in question, does not agree with the premise that led to its closing. Jones says that based on her observations, the lot is frequently used by postal customers, as well as others.

Jones said the city was aware of the repair needs and had been monitoring the situation through the office of Rep. Howard Coble, whose district includes Surry County.

“The last we heard, they (Postal Service officials) had it in the budget,” the city manager said of the repair project.

Bids for the resurfacing are said to have been higher than what the agency was expecting to pay, but Coachman could shed no light this week on any cost overrun involved. “Although the funding was approved, the authorization was overturned at the commitment stage. No specific funding amount can be provided, but the reason cited was (the) budget.”

After the project was shelved, the next thing Jones and others in Mount Airy saw was the lot being barricaded. “To be honest, we didn’t realize it was being closed…until all the pieces were going up,” she said of the concrete barriers and yellow tape. “No one had been in contact with me about what is going on.”

At first, the move seemed temporary but the addition of the barriers have given it a “permanent” feel, Jones said.

Farmers Market Uprooted

The shutdown of the lot serving as home base for the Mount Airy Farmers Market has market sponsors scrambling for another location for when it gets under way later this year.

“It was great place for the farmers market,” Bryan Cave, Surry County’s Cooperative Extension director, said of the area beside the post office. Extension officials, who spearhead a farmers market program at sites around the county, are hoping to secure another location soon, he said.

“I know Joanna and some of the downtown folks are working on it,” Cave said this week of Joanna Radford, an extension agent who coordinates the farmers markets. “I don’t know that they’ve come up with a place yet, but I know they’re working on it and it is in the thought process to continue that (Mount Airy Farmers Market).”

Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison said Thursday that she hopes the new site will be in the same general vicinity.

“We’re going to work to keep the farmers market downtown, because I think it’s great for downtown,” said Morrison, whose job as coordinator includes activities to drive more customer traffic there.

Morrison also is concerned about how the lot closure will impact parking availability in the central business district, particularly during high-demand periods.

“It’s going to be harder to find parking spots,” she said. “One of the major complaints about downtown is we don’t have enough parking.”

City Takeover?

There is a possibility of getting the post office parking lot back on line, with Morrison mentioning that she has heard the resurfacing project could be reinstated in the U.S. Postal Service budget and completed in 2015.

That was reinforced by Coachman, the Postal Service spokesperson, who indicated that the paving project might be re-evaluated for funding “if financial conditions improve in the future.”

In the meantime, it would be difficult for the city government — which recently has fielded inquiries from the public about what is occurring with the lot — to step in and make improvements since the municipality doesn’t own the property.

It is adjacent to a city-owned site along Cherry Street, where a pedestrian plan released last year suggests the development of a park including 67 new spaces to serve Reeves Community Center patrons.

Jones said the city government would entertain any proposal by the Postal Service to turn the lot over to the municipality. “If they don’t feel they need it.”

But, the city manager added, “no one has approached me.”

Such negotiations could pave the way for continued use of a lot Jones considers a key resource.

“It is a shame to have that blocked off — it would be nice to have it open and used by the public.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.