While some people leaned forward in their seats, others stood in the back of the room and craned their necks — ear first — to hear the positions Asheville's three mayoral candidates have on issues ranging from the police department to school systems.
The candidate forum, sponsored by the Asheville Buncombe League of Women Voters, Asheville FM and Mountain Xpress, attracted more than 100 people to the Asheville Chamber of Commerce on the evening of Sept. 19.
When it came to the economy, Vice Mayor Esther Manhimer, former city Risk Management Director John Miall and community activist Martin Ramsey all agreed that Asheville needs to attract more jobs that do not revolve around the tourism industry.
Citing Linamar and New Belgium as examples, Manheimer said economic development may be the key to diversifying Asheville's economy.
“High-quality jobs with benefits are what will add to our community,” she said, noting that those jobs should not come from one specific corporation so that the city is “not vulnerable to one large company closing and leaving.”
Miall said he sees economic potential in the health and wellness sector.
“Together with our greenways, our bikes, our culture that drives us right now — the pieces are there,” Miall said. “[We have] all the pieces necessary to make Asheville the health and wellness mecca it is destined to be.”
Ramsey, who works as a waiter at Early Girl Eatery, said, “Tourism should be critically looked at. I'm the only one up here whose power bill relies on the tourist industry.” Ramsey also said that the city should explore implementing an economic cooperative, which would allow the city and major institutions, like hospitals and universities, to use their combined spending power to help inspire the creation of worker-owned businesses.
Though all candidates had 1 ½ minutes to respond to each question, the most telling answers came from a pair of shorter yes-or-no questions regarding two city personnel matters.
When asked whether they have confidence in Asheville Police Chief William Anderson, only Manheimer responded positively when she said, “I'm standing by the chief of police at this point.”
When asked if they have confidence in City Manager Gary Jackson, Ramsey said “No,” Miall said, “Initially, yes,” and Manheimer said, “Yes.”
However, all candidates agreed that, if elected, they would continue the city's legal fight to keep its water system. At one point in the debate, Maill said, “Asheville is the most picked on, abused municipality in the history of cities.”
Manheimer used the phrase “pretty outdated” to describe the city's current zoning rules and ordinances — the unified development ordinance (UDO). However, she stressed that a one-size-fits-all approach would not work here, due to the character of the different parts of the city. Citing the recent series of workshops about Haywood Road and form-based coding in West Asheville as an example, Manheimer advocated for a community-by-community approach to development, starting with urban corridors.
“While this process is a little bit slower, it has the advantage of getting it right,” she said.
Miall said he grew up with multi-use zoning without even knowing it and that those ways of the past can work for the future.
“Bobby lived overhead of the drugstore. Martha may have lived upstairs over the bakery. That's how we grew up and how we lived. I think we'll go back to that and our planning and zoning will have to accommodate that.”
Ramsey says Asheville is developing at “an insane clip” and also advocated for an update to the UDO.
“We need to recognize that dense building in urban centers, and that sort of thing, is a very important way to green our city. We need to get people out of their cars. We need to get them walking around; being able to walk to work; being able to bike to work,” he said.
Miall said it also might be time for the community to start having a discussion about merging the Buncombe County School system with the Asheville City Schools system. As the state's 11th largest school system, Buncombe County Schools includes 42 schools, whereas the Asheville City Schools includes nine schools. However, Miall said his views on the matter will be informed by community conversation and research.
Ramsey, whose mother is a public school teacher, said he worries about the unintended burden the merge could place on educators.
Manheimer, whose husband teaches in the county system while her three children get their education in the city system, says she would not favor the merger for another reason.
“When or if that [merging of the school systems] ever happens, the per capita spending per student will be cut in half, approximately, and there will be less resources allocated to our students.” she said. “For those that live in the Asheville City School district, you are paying a separate tax to fund the school system and, as long as that is occurring, we as a city should be able to enjoy a separate school system to support our children.”
In his closing statement, Miall said that homelessness, though not brought up in the evening's forum, is a core concern of his after he began volunteering each month to feed the homeless.
“It is absolutely astounding to me the impoverished people that we see,” he said. “Until everybody in this town has the same opportunity, and the same opportunity to advance and to grow and to matter, I don't think we've met our core needs as a community.
Ramsey says that, if he's elected, he would like to push for an egalitarian future, “where everyone gets to matter” and generates “the kind of growth that we do need, growth that empowers people and an economic plan that can help get us there.”
For Manheimer, her candidacy is about the spirit of the city's people and places.
“Ultimately, no matter who is the next mayor of Asheville, what matters is this community is a great community, that it stays a great community, that it's a community for all ages and for all people to have opportunity.”
Caitlin Byrd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 251-1333, ext. 140.