It’s 2 a.m. and the ice cream is melting – Kathryn Lookofsky is at Kroger wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt, red hair spilling out of a baseball cap, no makeup on and ready to check out. Then, a downtown merchant who just happens to be there walks up and asks her a question.
“I’m really never off work, which is irritating,” Lookofsky said. “But I’m not complaining. I love what I do.”
Lookofsky plays a key role as director and CEO of the Athens Downtown Development Authority in all things concerning economic development downtown, and part of her job is that she’s always on the job.
She explains her job this way:
“I walk that bridge between the downtown business community and local government,” she says. “I help get information back and forth, and help make sure both pieces work well together.”
The latest example of her work is the oversight of a seven-story parking deck being built on the corner of Lumpkin and Washington next to the Georgia Theatre, which will be using $6,768,205 in SPLOST funds appropriated in 2005 as a part of Project 28 of that year’s SPLOST referendum.
“We have the ability to issue bonds, and that’s what we did to finance the parking deck for the ADDA part of it,” Lookofsky said. “It was a bond issuance of just right over $6 million. They’re revenue bonds, so they’ll be paid back over time with revenue from the parking deck.”
The new deck is a three-way venture between the ADDA, Athens-Clarke County and a development company called Batson-Cook.
“The easiest way to think about that, to wrap your head around that is to kind of think of it like a condominium development, where you buy an apartment in the condominium, or a unit,” Lookofsky said. “You don’t own the whole building. So the way it’s set up now, the county owns the actual land that the building sits on. Batson-Cook owns the retail and the office parts of the building, and then the county, or the parking services, owns the parking aspects of it. It’s a lot more complicated and detailed than that, but that’s the crux of it.”
And the goal of the deck?
“The goal would be to provide more parking downtown,” Lookofsky said. “That’s not a smartass answer, that’s really the goal. We’re building it for more parking. I think last count was 520 or 540. I don’t remember exactly.”
Last year, the total operating budget for downtown Athens collected as revenue was $281,000.
“We have a downtown tax district, that’s the ADDA district, and there’s a millage rate for all the property in that district,” Lookofsky said. “We get part of the money for the property taxes in that district, and last year it was about $150,000. So that’s one way we get money. We also manage the downtown parking system, and we get paid a fee by the county to manage the system, and that’s $100,000 a year. Plus, we get a bonus if the revenues are beyond what was projected, so that just encourages us to do the job better. The bonus is part of our operating budget.”
Lookofsky, a Georgia native, came to this work after returning from a position in another state.
“I managed a small town in New Hampshire,” Lookofsky said. “I worked for the city of Decatur, worked for the city of Jonesboro, and eventually wound up in Athens. I actually love Athens. I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be. It’s a great town.”
Lookofsky makes the most of her job by working with others holding her position around the state.
“I know the woman that does my job in Augusta,” Lookofsky said. “I talk to the people in Savannah and Decatur more than anybody because they’re the most similar – we have more in common with the issues we face and the problems we face. We definitely compare notes and steal ideas and copy each other.”
She’s really never off the clock outside of the professional world.
“Even when I go on vacation out of town, I’ll be taking pictures of manhole covers or street lamps and thinking of things we could try out here,” Lookofsky said in an Athens Banner-Herald article on Oct. 31, 2008.
Being close to home is not much different when it comes to being off the clock.
“The rare opportunity I do get to go on a date, I hardly ever come downtown,” Lookofsky said. “I’ll be on the date and somebody will come to the [restaurant] table and speak for 30 minutes.”
Regardless of working day and night to appropriate millions of dollars or just to make sure all the streetlights are working, Lookofsky’s personal life, when she gets to enjoy it, looks a lot like the girl’s next door or the guy’s across the street.
“I enjoy cooking, hanging out with friends,” Lookofsky said. “I like to go see live music, host dinner parties. I’m a runner. I hang out with my dog, Rufus – he’s a basset hound, pit bull mix. He’s really cute.”
Kathryn Lookofsky doesn’t know what she wants for dinner — but at least her meal ticket is paid.
Next month marks her 5-year-anniversary as director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, and as she peruses Kroger’s isles for the possible menu for the evening’s table-makings, she goes over a few of the changes she has already brought to the table.
“Our old parking meters — the ones that you twist, the manual-style ones — we bought those used in 1985,” Lookofsky said. “They’re so antiquated that it’s really hard to find new parts for them when they break. We had to figure out what we were going to replace them with.”
An answer to the problem of the ancient coin swallowers came in the form of sixteen spanking-new parking kiosks installed in March of last year on Broad and Clayton streets between Thomas and Lumpkin at $11,000 each – a price that included shipping and installation
Another project helmed by Lookofsky dealt similarly with outdated citation practices.
Athens-Clarke County did a study three years ago comparing the city of Athens to others of comparable size and demographics, only to find that the citizens of Athens were paying remarkably lower citation rates.
The city decided to make an adjustment.
“One of the problems with our fines originally was that people just considered it the price of parking — it wasn’t a fine,” Lookofsky said. “Once we raised the rates it actually became a fine, and people paid attention to the rules and said, ‘Oh, I better move, I’m going to get a ticket.’”
Three dollars — the old rate — was bumped up to $10, more than tripling the price of parking past a meter’s time limit.
Increased fines coupled with the new kiosks have contributed considerably toward the coffers of Athens-Clarke County’s downtown governing element, but Lookofsky contends the funds are not a source of profit for her outfit.
“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding there,” Lookofsky said. “The whole purpose of managing the parking is to make sure that people have a place to park and it’s not being abused, and that the parking turns out. A lot of people think that it’s a revenue source, and it’s just not.”
Lookofsky and the ADDA get paid a fee for managing parking, “but as far as making money off of parking, we don’t,” she said.
The ADDA is not technically a governmental body, though it does have the ability to distribute taxpayer funds for public works projects, such as using SPLOST funds totaling over $6 million in a joint-effort with the development company Batson-Cook in building a seven-story commercial parking deck.
“We serve as a liaison between the downtown business community and the local government,” Lookofsky said.
But parking is only one of Lookofsky’s jurisdictions in the downtown area — she may hold the keys to the kingdom, but another woman manages the locks.
“It’s been tremendous how the revenue has improved,” said Laura Miller, director of Parking Services, speaking on the parking kiosks that have been in place for almost a year. “Better than 20 percent.”
Such an increase in revenue comes from the fact that, as Miller put it, “Everyone must pay to park.”
Under the old meter system, a customer would park, put money in and do whatever downtown. The meter would still tick to the good when the customer decided to leave, allowing for that time to be used by another visitor to the downtown area once the spot had been vacated.
Plus, it was hard to get an accurate accounting of money with the wind-up jobs — the little coin catchers inside acted almost like beggars’ cups.
“So many hands were in the money on the way to the bank,” Miller said. “The new machines will tell you to the penny how much money has been put in them, and when you take it to the bank there better be that much there.”
The number of citations since the installation of the kiosks has increased alongside revenue from people simply feeding money — or debit and credit cards, a new convenience for downtown parkers — to the new machines.
There were a total of 20,110 expired meter citations written for the period of October 1, 2009, through the day before the kiosks were put in on March 29,2010. These citations account for a grand total of fines at $201,130.
Comparatively, there were a total of 22,122 expired meter citations written for the period of October 1, 2009 through March 8, 2011, and these citations account for a total of $329,423.
The difference between the two periods of time shows that the kiosks have brought potentially extra
revenue in the order of nearly $130,000. One drawback of these numbers is that not everyone has paid their tickets. For example, the balance still due for the 2010-2011 period is $206,845.
All of the revenue collected from parking downtown stays downtown: “Every last penny,” Miller said. The funds go toward downtown enhancements, such as holiday lighting and decorative banners hung from street lights.
And who is responsible for these amassed fines — the delineator of lines crossed, and ultimate regulator of bought time?
Nick Andersen makes his way, car by car, up the street. He is checking meters when there are meters to check and kiosk printout slips when they are present on dashboards.
A long stick is in his hand, and attached to the end of that stick is a piece of chalk that’s “more like a crayon.” This goes on the tire of a vehicle.
When a vehicle moves, the chalk-crayon hybrid comes off of the tire. If the vehicle doesn’t move, but the ticker does — into the red — the driver of the vehicle could get a ticket.
“I am called Parking Violations Officer,” Andersen said. “Nicknames, I’ve heard many: meter maid, meter butler, ticket fairy. Those are all okay with me.”
Andersen sums up nicely the ground up view of parking downtown — puts the meat back on the bone, so to speak: it’s all about the money.
“There are merchants on the board of directors that make policy for the company,” Andersen said. “This is really a lot about the merchants being able to have good traffic in their business, keep the spaces turning over.”