Aspen’s parking czar rolls out of government
Mitch Osur, the city’s director of parking and downtown services, calls it quits after six years on the job
For the past six years Mitch Osur has been the face of the city of Aspen for businesses and the public at large, serving as the connection between private enterprise and government.
His role as the director of parking and downtown services has made him both the good guy, the bad guy, the fall guy and more recently, the COVID-19 guy.
“I try to make it better for the community and businesses,” Osur said Friday, his last day working for the city.
He was one of the few municipal employees who not once worked from home during the pandemic, helping the city, retail stores, businesses and restaurants navigate not only uncharted waters but also constantly changing public health orders.
“The rules were so complicated, they changed literally by the day at the beginning,” he said. “I was out there, and it was fantastic because I was interfacing with the businesses, I was interfacing with the restaurants every single day, my phone was ringing 24 hours a day.”
The frenetic pace continued through the seasons as Osur worked with the engineering and environmental health departments, as well as with the city manager and city clerk’s office, to accommodate businesses in the public right of way in order to increase capacity and provide outdoor space for the public.
That came in the form of coordinating the allowance of temporary dining structures to replace parking spaces, along with more tables on sidewalks and other concessions.
City Clerk Nicole Henning administered those vitality programs with Osur and said he approached work with enthusiasm.
“He went at it in the best positive and constructive way,” she said. “He builds relationships and finds a way to give people a ‘yes’ instead of a ‘no’ and he is the reason people were successful.”
Osur also administered programs that were in the city’s $6 million COVID-19 relief and recovery program, such as small loans and rent relief given to businesses.
“We should be so proud of where we came, we gave away $1 million to 114 businesses with minimal issues,” he said. “I give credit to the city, the staff, (City Manager Sara Ott) and council because things were moving so fast, and we all had to make it work, and they were great about it.”
Putting a face to government
Osur took the job in 2015, which was when the city made it a hybrid position and included downtown services to the title of parking director.
He had no experience in parking; his background was in retail and had been the regional manager of Aspen Sports and then ran customer service, logistics and distribution for American Recreation Products LLC in Boulder.
“I wanted to get back to Aspen,” he said of why he applied.
He soon became an expert in managing the downtown core’s 682 parking spaces, 3,000 in residential areas and 292 in the Rio Grande parking garage.
He soon learned the realities of what was happening on the ground and within a year he made the bold move to double parking prices.
“I had some people reach out to me, businesses in particular and say, ‘You’re going to kill us with raising parking prices’ and I said, ‘I got a deal for you: We are doing this as a three-month test, I’m a retailer. If everything works according to my numbers but sales tax revenue goes down, it’s a failure and I said you guys call me in September.’ That summer we had 17% increase in sales tax revenue.”
The price increase drove local workers to park outside of the core, freeing up spaces for people to shop and eat.
Osur said when he started 70% of the spaces downtown were taken by employees.
The goal is to have 85% occupancy in the downtown core’s parking space inventory, which is to prevent motorists from circling the block looking for a place to park.
Osur has since convinced City Council to institute dynamic pricing where it’s more expensive during peak times of the day and less expensive at slower times.
“My goal was to treat the downtown core as the golden goose,” he said. “I wanted to manage parking in the downtown core for the tourists and the locals coming into town to spend money and some people disagreed and got mad at me.”
He noted that businesses across 16 blocks in downtown Aspen produced almost $1 billion in sales tax revenue annually prior to COVID.
Osur tailored his job to be similar to what he saw in Boulder, where they had a director of downtown vitality who also managed parking.
“If you manage parking correctly downtown is more vital, which we proved because sales tax revenues went up,” he said.
There was another element to the city’s top administrators’ attempt to have a constructive relationship with the business community in creating the director of downtown services.
“The truth is that the businesses hated the city. They believed that everything the city was doing was to hurt their businesses,” with its regulations and policies, Osur said.
So his intention was to reach out to business owners and managers and be the resource for them to navigate through government bureaucracy.
“The first place I went was Daniels Antiques, and I introduced myself to Simon (the president of the store), and he said, ‘Congratulations, Mitch, I’ve been here 20 years and you’re the first person from the city to ever walk in and introduce themselves.'”
From that point on, Osur tried to be the eyes and ears for businesses and fight for what they wanted or needed.
But that wasn’t always in his control.
He found himself in front of an angry mob of business owners on a stretch of Hopkins Avenue known as “Restaurant Row” a few years ago.
Osur and Pete Rice, from the city’s engineering department, had to explain to the group, who were packed into a meeting room on the top floor of the fire station, the reasoning behind the city’s plans to turn the street into a one-way with a bike lane.
“We got the shit beat out of us, that was a disaster,” Osur recalled, adding that it was a learning experience for city officials in how to do public outreach.
The plans were ultimately scrapped.
Back to the parking landscape
Also under Osur’s tenure was the implementation of 15-minute free parking to allow people to run quick errands without feeding the meter, as well as license plate recognition at the meters so paper tickets on the dashboard are no longer necessary.
Osur stressed that less than 15% of the budget is parking ticket revenue, with the majority of it coming from fees, which pays for free transit on city routes.
The city has gone to virtual parking passes in residential areas, which is one of the first in the country to do so, Osur said.
Also one of the first programs in the country to be rolled out in Aspen is the smart loading zones for delivery drivers so they can reserve areas for nominal fees to better manage loading and unloading.
“That has gotten us a lot of data to understand what people are doing, what time of the day trucks are coming, how long are they staying for, what is their dwell time,” Osur said. “I tried to run a data-driven department.”
Over 50 fleets and 300 drivers are signed up in the smart loading zone program.
He and the city created a fifth residential parking zone in town, which is in the east end neighborhood where there is a high density of people living and had a problem of local workers parking there for free before the $8-per-day fee was instituted.
Osur, who is returning to the retail scene and starting Monday, will be the inventory manager at Kemo Sabe, a retailer specializing in western apparel and custom hats.
“The city was great, and I had a fantastic six years, but I looked at this opportunity to get back into what I love,” he said. “Working in a family business is exciting for me, and I think I can help them because they have great plans for the future.”
Aspen City Council approved a contract with Daniel Joseph (DJ) Watkins during Tuesday’s regular meeting to move forward with his intentions to operate his proposed “Aspen Collective,” which is currently occupied by Mia Valley’s Valley Fine Art.