Lot of money: Parking place could be linchpin development

One of the biggest– if not the very biggest– real estate deal in Charlottesville history might soon shake up downtown and the tightly-held company that stands to reap around $7 million in the contemplated sale.

Charlottesville Parking Center Inc., CPC, a private firm long entwined in civic affairs, is currently negotiating to sell an entire city block just south of the Downtown Mall.

"It's obviously a great location," says Roger Voisinet, a realtor with an avid eye for downtown. Voisinet says the lot– now occupied by a 126-space public parking lot– offers a developer the chance to create a dramatic link between the Mall and the burgeoning retail destrict that has recently emerged across the CSX railroad tracks.

While the manager of the CPC, Bob Stroh, confirms that sale negotiations are under way, he stresses that no announcement is imminent. "Negotiations are negotiations," says Stroh. "They could go on for years."

Complicating matters for the company is a philosophical divide that has emerged in recent years. The company was set up in 1959 to save downtown from the perceived threat of the then new Barracks Road Shopping Center by providing cheap parking. However, at least two unabashed capitalists have become stockholders, and they've expressed interest in reaping some rewards.

Richard Spurzem is one of them. A real estate developer who recently prodded a local bank, Albemarle First, into selling itself, Spurzem says he wants a return on his CPC investment.

However, unlike most companies that strive to make profits, CPC sells parking so cheaply that downtown shoppers and diners can get two hours of free parking without even making a purchase. While each participating business sets its own policies, the fact remains that anyone can stroll into CVS pharmacy or the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library– to name just two– and get their CPC parking ticket stamped.

"A lot of merchants think CPC is a public entity," says Spurzem. "And yet it's not a charity. It's a for-profit enterprise that doesn't pay a dividend."

Even with its approximately 400,000 shares outstanding, selling the parking lot could bring a lot of money.

"If they sell this thing for $7 million," says Spurzem, "that's $20 per share they could pay as a dividend."

However, in 46 years of business, CPC has never paid a dividend.

"We as a class have been waiting a long time," says CPC stockholder W. Spencer Connerat, "since the flag had 49 stars and Ronald Reagan was host of G.E. Theater."

A CPC stockholder who says he fought his way into a brief stint on the CPC board in 1997, Connerat says the sale of the lot offers an opportunity. "It might be a reasonable time to take that profit."

Efforts to learn more about the directions CPC might take in the future were rebuffed by Jim Berry, the company's president and CEO. "I wouldn't have anything to say," Berry said when reached by telephone.

Like the other corporate officers, Berry serves without pay. And yet, as Spurzem points out, Berry and others hold significant assets: thousands and thousands of shares of CPC.

Spurzem believes that Berry and Charlottesville banking icon Hovey Dabney hold about 36 percent of the company. That was revealed in the a 1997 stock appraisal. However, Spurzem says he has been "stonewalled" in his more recent efforts to obtain a full list of fellow shareholders.

According to that document, the company had a liquidation value of $1,478,320. However, based on its board's low-profit, no-dividend insistence, the company might have been as little as $671,604, according to the 1997 appraisal.

But in the intervening eight years, Charlottesville real estate has seen a dramatic run-up. Spurzem says the City's 2003 overhaul of its zoning ordinance– which removed many parking and height restrictions– compounded the climb in the value of the parking lot. "And that's only one of the assets," Spurzem points out.

Other company holdings include contracts to manage the parking decks on Market Street and Water Street as well as the ownership of over 100 parking spaces plus the land underneath the Water Street parking deck.

Under manager Bob Stroh, the company has become a major force in promoting downtown. In addition to operating parking lots and decks for the betterment of downtown, CPC has contributed Stroh's time to participate in civic and tourism events, and contributed his time to lead the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville. But for some shareholders, it's time for CPC to stop acting like a charity.

"The story is they're a large land-owner in Charlottesville, and they're doing a deal that could lead to the biggest development in downtown, says Spurzem. "Everyone knows who Coran [Capshaw] is, but just what is CPC?"

Assessed by the City for just $1.26 million, this parking lot was privately appraised at $7 million.