With Mount Airy’s “festival season” approaching and thousands of visitors expected to strain parking resources, a large lot beside the city post office could help alleviate that — if only it were open.
Despite vigorous attempts to negotiate with officials of the U.S. Postal Service — which owns the site — the lot remains closed, as it has been since January, because the space needs repairs and is deemed unsafe by the USPS. Familiar yellow tape that is part of a barricade there is a constant reminder of parking spaces aplenty which are near, yet so far away.
“It looks like a crime scene,” one city official remarked when the lot impasse was discussed at a recent meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners. “It’s really embarrassing to have that lot closed.”
However, at this point prospects appear slim that the long-used parking area located to one side of the post office will reopen anytime soon, although City Manager Barbara Jones pledges to keep plugging away.
Its closure in January capped a strange series of events, which began with funding being approved in October 2013 by the USPS to resurface the lot. But that project later was cancelled due to not being considered a priority by the financially strapped Postal Service, with bids for the work said to have come in higher than what the agency was willing to pay.
So the yellow tape and concrete barriers went up in January to eliminate safety/liability problems, with the public not being able to use the space since. This mirrors a contention by postal officials that they aren’t obligated to provide parking for the public in general and sufficient space exists elsewhere at the facility — a notion the city disputes.
The commissioners seemed to be in a militant mood when the parking lot impasse was discussed at the recent meeting, when the city manager reported on the latest attempts to resolve the situation.
“I have had some recent communications with the Postal Service,” said Jones, who had weaved her way through a number of legislative channels and USPS contacts to finally speak with “a nice gentleman” in Colorado.
She discussed with him the possibly of the Postal Service turning over the site to the municipality, which would then make the needed repairs. “They would decline to donate their property to us,” Jones said of the response to that.
The possible purchase of it by Mount Airy also hit a brick wall. “He said typically the Postal Service does not sell property,” Jones told the commissioners regarding the answer from the man in Colorado.
That has opened the door for another potential solution, in which the city government would refurbish the lot and then lease it from the USPS through an agreement whereby it would be reimbursed for that expense. Jones mentioned a price of $1 per year.
But this brings up issues about whether the city should, or legally could, repair someone else’s property in such a manner at local taxpayer expense.
So at present, nothing is set in stone regarding the lot’s future use. “There are no good solutions at this point, but we’ll keep trying,” the city manager said of herself and staff members.
The next steps will include obtaining cost figures for the paving job and exploring a lease deal addressing that, hopefully allowing a decision to be finalized sometime this fall. Jones added.
In the meantime, the commissioners aren’t exactly ready to give the USPS the key to the city, expressing dissatisfaction with the way the issue has been handled.
“This is property of the people,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said of a lot presumably paid for by public funds. The site — where Harris Building Supply once was located and a bus station before that, along with other uses — was bought by the post office many years ago for a possible expansion that never materialized.
And while they agreed that it would be difficult for a small municipality to take on a massive federal agency, council members did suggest some acts of defiance — at least jokingly.
Since the city has power over parking and other regulations, Commissioner Dean Brown said “no parking” signs should be placed at on-street sites in front of the post office to strike back.
Commissioner Jon Cawley said the city ought to condemn, and presumably take over, the closed lot since it is said to be in such bad shape.
Cawley also said it appears to him that Mount Airy could attack USPS officials from the standpoint of not meeting municipal regulations calling for adequate parking availability for customer use. “I don’t think they’re providing those spots,” he said.
“I think from what we are seeing, the Postal Service needs additional parking,” said the city manager, whose office is located right across the street. On Saturday afternoon, when the post office was open, all on-street spaces were being used from the office to Cherry Street.
In response to a question from him, Brown was told the lot can’t be opened temporarily to accommodate traffic for the upcoming Mayberry Days and Autumn Leaves Festival, because of the liability concern. In the past, it has been a resource for larger vehicles especially.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.