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Got Business With A Stranger From The Internet? Meet Them At This Mountain-Area 'Safe-Lot'

Davin Eldridge
Hendersonvilles so-called "Safe Lot" has been around for about a year, and follows the trend of other cities and 'bedrooms communities' throughout the U.S. that have adopted them to provide secure grounds for in-person online transactions.

The need for safety between buyers and sellers on websites like Craigslist is essential.  But it’s not always guaranteed. One Western North Carolina town is on a quest to provide that safety.

According to online classified site Craigslist, more than sixty million people use the site each month—and on occasion some users have found themselves in shady or even dangerous situations while meeting with prospective buyers or sellers. But at least for the residents near Hendersonville, there is a safer option available to them to conduct their online business.

Right off the busy intersection of North King Street and Sixth Avenue in downtown Hendersonville, a mostly-empty parking lot behind City Hall doubles as the town’s very own “Internet Purchase Exchange Location”—a place where anyone can go to safely buy, sell or trade items that they found online.

“Commerce is always changing, and city government has to be willing change with the times." - John Connett, Hendersonville City Manager.

“It kind of gives the person that’s exchanging the items a little extra security,” says Hendersonville Police Captain Tracy Cox, who came up with the idea to designate the lot a year ago. “More so than just meeting at a random space or place out in the community. Basically just give them a spot that they can pull in, and do the exchange. It’s here in the police parking lot, so usually there’s some police officers around here somewhere.” 

And if providing a space near a police station isn’t enough for some online shoppers to feel secure, the small sign at the end of the lot designating it safe for business also promises the public in bold lettering that the area is “under video surveillance”.

“I feel like it’s a safer area to do a transaction, you won’t get robbed.” - Christopher Vargas, of Rutherford County.

So far, there have been no incidents reported at the site since its inception, says Cox, who wanted Hendersonville to avoid some of the horror stories surrounding in-person internet transactions. Citing armed robbery, kidnapping, and even the infamous “Craigslist killings” of 2009, Cox felt it was a problem other municipalities were fixing rather cheaply and easily.

“It was a combination of bad press, and just—I had noticed the idea from other police departments throughout the country that were doing it.” 

Cox says the department has noticed a rise in the parking lot’s use since it was given its designation last summer. He credits word of mouth, the internet, and a combination of the two, with its success thus far.

“I think this gives people a little bit comfort of mind knowing that they’re meeting at a police department. .. It’s certainly going to deter anyone who had violent intents. Again, we can’t guarantee your safety anywhere. It is a deterrent for crime.” 

But if you ask City Manager John Connett, Hendersonville’s “Internet Purchase Exchange Location” is a sign of the times.

“Commerce is always changing, and city government has to be willing change with the times," says Connett. "This is just a good example of continuing to provide services to our local businesses, or businesses who that are not local but are citizens, so they have a safe place.”

It took thirty-three-year-old Christopher Vargas nearly an hour to reach the site from his home in Rutherford County, just to sell a couple sports video games for the Xbox. He was a little uneasy about meeting the buyer elsewhere, because when they answered his posting on his local Facebook yard sale page, the buyer insisted at first they meet at his home. He opted instead to meet the buyer there.

“I feel like it’s a safer area to do a transaction, you won’t get robbed,” he says. While Vargas wasn’t too thrilled about having to drive to Henderson, he said with four kids and a fiancée back home, he didn’t want to take any chances. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s better to just go ahead and be monitored.”

The site in Hendersonville is the region’s first official location for public online transactions. However, several other law enforcement agencies in the region indicate their lots are often used for similar purposes, as well as for child custody exchanges. Agencies that have reported having such transactions on their grounds include Fletcher and Franklin Police Departments, and Jackson and Haywood County Sheriff's Departments. 

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