Mountain Character: Aspen parking czar takes a retailer’s approach
Having worked decades in the field of sports and outdoor retail, Mitch Osur might not have seemed the prime candidate to lead the city of Aspen’s Parking Department.
He had no experience in issuing parking tickets or monitoring meters, but he’d spent a career in customer service and financial analysis. He also was the regional manager of Aspen Sports from 2007 to February 2011, so he had local knowledge, and he had taken family ski trips here since he was a young child going back to 1965. From 2011 to 2015, Osur, now 59, ran customer service, logistics and distribution for American Recreation Products LLC in Boulder, the parent of such companies as Ultimate Direction and Sierra Designs.
But when he saw a job opening in the city’s Parking Department — longtime director Tim Ware was reassigned to manage the city’s ice-rink facilities after it was revealed motorists had exploited the parking system by using expired debit cards — he applied in October 2014.
“I wanted to get back to Aspen, but I needed to find the right job,” said Osur, the father of two grown-up daughters.
It wasn’t until April 2015 that the city got back to Osur.
“They said they had interviewed people with parking experience but no one they really liked,” Osur recalled. “They saw my resume and liked that I had customer service, dealer service.”
The city hired Osur, a graduate of Babson College in Boston who once ran a ski shop in Rochester, New York, for some 30 years. His first day on the job was June 29.
With no experience in running or working for a parking department, Osur said he was trained by longtime employees Debbie Kirkwood and Blake Fitch, as well as Assistant City Manager Randy Ready, who once supervised the department.
With job responsibilities that included overseeing a department of 12 employees that had revenues of $6.748 million in 2015, Osur was compelled to read trade publications, talk to local retailers and residents and hit the streets with his enforcement officers to get a feel of their jobs and the town.
His research showed him that Aspen’s parking arena was more like a university campus’s than a large city’s — “Because like a university, we have lots of cars but not very much space,” he said.
He learned the city has about 650 parking spots in the downtown core, some 3,000 in the residential areas, and 345 in the Rio Grande Parking Garage.
City Manager Steve Barwick also had told Osur he was open to change. Osur took him up on the offer.
“I said, ‘If you’re looking for the status quo, don’t hire me. If you want what I consider intelligent change, I’m the guy to hire. I look at things from a retail point of view.”
Osur has implemented a number of changes since taking over, but not all have been embraced by locals.
The most controversial one has been Osur’s “dynamic parking” experiment the city will roll out in June, July and August. Meter fares will increase by 50 percent. Osur is implementing the increase to see if it will discourage locals from parking their vehicles downtown to open up spots for visitors. Osur has said that 70 percent of motorists who park downtown are locals and workers.
Osur sees it as a way to lessen the parking headaches of summer — the busiest time of the year when it comes to vehicular traffic in town. If the Parking Department reels in the $150,000 to $200,000 in extra revenue, Osur said he would consider it, combined with taking 50 vehicles out of the downtown core a day during the test period, a success. The money would go back into transportation perks for locals — like bus passes, free bike tunes and alternative transportation programs.
“When we talk about higher prices this summer, which people are upset about, we’re not doing it for the revenue,” he said. “We’re doing it to help the retailers and restaurants have a better experience.”
Osur has been hammering on the message that it costs $50 for a 10-punch pass to the parking garage — that’s $5 a day. He encourages locals to park in the free two-hour residential spaces or pay $8 to use those spaces for an entire day.
“I hear where they are coming from,” he said of the complaints. “But also remember, it’s a three-month test.”
Osur said the parking garage is active, but even so, not enough locals and tourists use it.
In September, the Parking Department gave out free day passes for the parking garage whenever the Denver Broncos won a game that month. The eventual Super Bowl champs delivered, winning all three of their games that month.
Two hundred people took the Parking Department up on its offer, Osur said. Osur said he’s also considering a similar campaign for the Colorado Avalanche, provided they make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Osur also has had his staff beef up patrol at the Aspen Recreation Center, which is reserved for users only. He said Aspen Highlands skiers and high school students have been using the parking spaces — nothing new there — but he hopes more enforcement will send them elsewhere.
Osur has other initiatives as well, but he wasn’t ready to go public with them.
“For me, it’s about education and outreach,” he said. “I try to walk around for an hour almost every day and interact with the locals on the street. I’ve met with a majority of the hotels and big employers, and I’ve reached out to the chamber of commerce. I want people to know I’m here to listen to them.
“I came in with no predisposed thoughts or feelings on parking. I am open to any ideas that people have that are reasonable.”
Osur, who lives in Carbondale, said he takes a bus to work each day. He said he would like to see more government workers take alternative transportation to work, as well.
“It bothers me when I come into town and see traffic backed up,” he said.
On the parking-enforcement side, Osur said everyone should be treated fairly, but he also wants his officers to hold their ground.
“We only want to give tickets to people who have earned them — if they didn’t pay the meter, are parked in loading zones,” he said. “I’ve told my officers that when in doubt, don’t give a ticket.”
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