The Yard Sale Queen, my significant other,  is a lifelong Culpeper County resident. She has seen so many changes and constantly mentions businesses and places that no longer exist. She talks about running daily to Gayheart’s Drug Store from Ann Wingfield Elementary to purchase a fried donut and Coke for a quarter. She also remembers a motel where the Catholic Church sits and the bus station that is now a town-owned parking lot, near The Depot. More about the parking lot later.

I moved here in 1998. East Davis Street and much of downtown has been transformed from boarded up storefronts – one with a tree growing through the front wall – into a vibrant economic engine filled with eclectic shops, restaurants to suit every appetite and palate, along with boutique hotels.

With the hard work of investors and risk-taking entrepreneurs, downtown Culpeper has reinvented itself into an award-winning destination for locals and tourists. Through meals and sales taxes collected and real estate, personal property and Business, Occupational and Professional License (BPOL) taxes paid, downtown is an economic engine that helps fill town coffers.

The town, through taxpayers, supports a healthy downtown by subsidizing Culpeper Renaissance Inc. (CRI), downtown’s economic arm, with $150,000 annually and through the more than $811,000 in tax money for the town’s Economic Development and Tourism department and Visitor’s Center. Those expenditures are designed to lure people to the town, county and particularly the historic downtown.

To give you an idea about revenue, take the meals tax. In FY13, the town collected $2.8 million in meals tax. In FY18, the town took in about $4.2 million, an additional $1.4 million.

Earlier this month, the town tourism department released state figures about the value of tourism – tourism not locals – and its impact on the local economy. In 2017, tourism contributed a whopping $42.6 million to the local economy, supporting 416 jobs and while adding about $975,000 in tourism-related taxes. These latest figures represent a 5.9 percent increase over 2016.

Tourism is the goose that lays the golden egg. Tourists help maintain our quaint town. while keeping real estate and personal property taxes reasonable.

But local merchants and restaurant owners are concerned that discussions by the Culpeper Parking Authority to charge for parking at the eight town-owned lots will cripple downtown businesses and kill the goose. They say available free parking helps lure day trippers and locals to downtown to shop and dine. They say this is not a big city where paid parking is everywhere. This is Culpeper, one of the Top 10 Small Towns in America, one of Virginia’s best kept secrets and winner of Main Street awards.

The Parking Authority is concerned that it doesn’t bring in enough revenue to meet expenditures and have been studying paid parking during its last two quarterly meetings. The town has historically used general fund money to make up any shortfall. The town’s public works department handles snow removal and maintenance. A parking attendant writes violations of overtime parking in the time-restricted lots and some people pay $30 a month to park anytime in the lots.

I spoke with more than half dozen restaurant and shop owners. All agreed that paid parking is a bad idea and not well thought out. They questioned why the Parking Authority was discussing the matter without even contacting the stakeholders in downtown. Good question.

The Parking Authority hasn’t really come up with hard numbers on what it would cost for the infrastructure to collect parking fees, which adds to its expenses.

One stakeholder said: “If you want people to shop local, don’t make it difficult.”

Another merchant thought it was a bad idea and that the town collects enough taxes to offer free parking.

Merchants used words like “ridiculous” and “counterproductive” when talking about paid parking.

Merchants claim paid parking would work counter to efforts by CRI and Tourism to increase tourist traffic.

One restaurant owner said paid parking would be like a stake in the heart that kills the body.

Another shop owner suggested abolishing the Parking Authority and making a Parking Commission that wouldn’t have to worry about revenue streams.

“If the town charges for parking, it will kill us,” said one restaurant owner.

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