WLOX Investigates The Garage That Nobody Uses - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

04/29/05

WLOX Investigates The Garage That Nobody Uses

The view is the same on every level of the CTA Transit Center. Empty parking spaces are everywhere.

"What do I see?" asked Harrison County Supervisor William Martin.

His board has a financial investment in a garage that downtown Gulfport visitors rarely use.

"When I look at the garage today, I see a building that's basically not being utilized," said Martin.

On a March 30th visit to the garage, 10 cars were parked on the ground floor. Three weeks later, 18 cars were downstairs, and not a single automobile on the upper floors.

Monthly parking counts supplied by CTA proved that the spot checks weren't isolated instances. An average of just 610 cars a month used the CTA garage since it opened -- significantly less than the 13,000 cars that could use the garage during a 30 day period.

"That's not very good," former CTA executive Ted Hearn said, after looking at a garage report from the last 15 months.

Hearn once sat on committees that analyzed how the bus company could satisfy downtown Gulfport's parking needs. He said an east side garage on the old B. Frank Brown Gym property was never a consideration.

"Of course that was not our plan. Our plan was to build a surface parking lot over there," he said.

As a matter of fact, the plan pitched in 2000 by CTA, the city of Gulfport and the Gulfport Downtown Association was to create two surface lots -- one west of Highway 49 and the other one east of 49.

Two years later, word spread that the federal government had its own plan. The garage would be build east of 49, to support the new federal courthouse across the street.

"It was a federal situation. I don't remember who all was involved in it," Hearn said.

Multiple sources say Sen. Trent Lott's office played a significant role in the CTA project. The senator's staff helped secured the $7.4 million grant. And the sources said it was part of a federal group pushing for the garage to have ties to the courthouse.

Last month, Lott said he didn't remember specific details about the parking structure.

"I don't usually get in to try to designate a location for a parking garage or anything of that nature," the Mississippi Senator said. "My job is to get the money."

The switch to a garage surprised the Gulfport Downtown Association.

On September 20, 2002, GDA president John Harral sent a letter to Gulfport's mayor. In it, he wrote the change to an east side garage "would be disastrous to existing downtown development plans."

"When I said that it would be a disaster, I think that was perhaps overdramatic," Harral admitted more than two years later.

Harral still thinks Gulfport's greater parking need is on the other side of Highway 49.

But, "I think long range, it's going to work in downtown development," Harral said. "Rome wasn't built in a day. And that parking garage is going to take some time to develop. But ultimately it will succeed."

If it does succeed, local tax dollars invested in the garage will pay dividends.

Since 2002, Gulfport has paid $1.8 million dollars to cover its share of the CTA parking project, and other CTA costs. Harrison County has chipped in $617,000 -- its share of the matching money that brought the garage to Gulfport.

Because of those financial figures, Hearn was asked if CTA, Gulfport and Harrison County wasted money by building the parking garage where it is.

"You could say if you looked at today and today was the rest of time, you could say yes," he admitted. "But I don't believe that's the way it's going to be from now on."

Supervisor Martin was also supportive of the investment.

"I wouldn't say it's a waste of taxpayers' dollars. There are things in the works that hopefully will make it work out," he said.

Martin thinks a cruise ship docking at the Port of Gulfport could take advantage of the empty parking spaces. CTA executives are trying to lure retail shops, and possibly apartment developers who could build living quarters on top of the garage.

Kevin Coggin says those could be long term solutions that put the parking lot concerns to rest.

"It's a good asset for the city of Gulfport. It's a good asset for CTA," the current CTA executive director said. "It has a potential to generate a lot of revenue for us that we could use to support the existing system and improve the system."

Coggin also has two short term solutions.

Last week, he urged his commission to move its Gulfport hub from the train depot to the garage. And he recommended the end of the free shuttle route that links the transit center to the rest of downtown.

Coggin concedes the shuttle bus is a lot like the garage -- most of the time it circles the city with no passengers on board.

"We would like for it to have gone better. But it didn't," he said. "So we're going in a different direction, and taking corrective action to make sure it's a success."

CTA's revenue numbers are pretty staggering. It's Gulfport garage charges up to seven dollars a day for parking. Yet, it's made just $11,744 since the CTA Transit Center opened in January, 2004.

That means the garage is averaging $783 in revenue each month. That's less than what CTA first budgeted for the garage.

by Brad Kessie

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