Big Ideas: In a few words

Terry Bellamy Photo by Max Cooper
Terry Bellamy Photo by Max Cooper

Xpress reached out to a variety of community leaders: What do they think the Big Ideas have been in the Asheville area?

"In my view, the best ‘big idea’ to ever hit this area was when the officials, voters and taxpayers of the city of Asheville purchased and developed the watershed properties that deliver water to the Asheville water system. The benefits of that investment [in the 1920s and ‘50s] have helped foster growth and prosperity to the whole region, and they should be applauded for their foresight. That some are attempting to rip those assets from the city qualifies as my suggestion for worst ‘big idea.’” — Barry Summers, Asheville resident and blogger for SaveOurWaterWNC

“The city’s development of Pack Square made a huge difference downtown. It opened up the pretty-much defunct downtown area and gave it the potential for people to want to come downtown. That goes back to the old historic buildings that were not wiped out back in the ‘20s. Development started in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, and it changed it completely. Before that, it was all peep shows, X-rated movies and kind of a rough element — it was just kind of seedy. That had happened because Asheville Mall opened up and just sucked all the heart out of downtown.” — Oscar Wong, Founder, Highland Brewing Company

“I lived downtown here in the early ‘80s and walked to work. Biltmore Avenue was dead at that point — totally dead. It probably wasn’t a safe walk for me to be doing at night. I think bringing businesses back to downtown in the early ‘90s was the beginning of Asheville as it is now.” — Zoe Rhine, librarian at Pack Memorial Library.

“I think the most recent idea that was very controversial, but came out really positive, was the open cut so that Asheville citizens and the rest of North Carolina could get around the area. It allowed the Interstate 240 to come through. That’s one of the ideas that we’re very fortunate to have had — if not, we’d have a bunch of tunnels underneath the mountain there. That’s one that I got to sit back and watch.

“It was such a controversial thing — but it was an important step for the community. A lot of people just didn’t want it — they thought the whole community was going to lose its appeal and that it would degrade the mountains. And it is an open cut, but I can’t imagine now having everything going through the tunnel on Tunnel Road. That just wouldn’t work now. But until that time, that’s the way you went.” — Mike Plemmons, director, Council of Independent Business Owners

“The open cuts were a big idea. Instead of building another tunnel, they did the open cuts. The reason that was a big idea is because it helped get people through Asheville, but, more importantly, the dirt that was taken from the open cuts helped create Martin Luther King Park and some of it went to McCormick Stadium as well.

Another big idea was the Minnie Jones Health Center, which was started in public housing by a low-income African American woman who was dealing with issues like HIV and AIDS — when that first started. She worked to make sure people with HIV and AIDS had access to adequate healthcare. Today they are now called WNCCHS — Western North Carolina Community Health Services. The biggest thing is, [WNCCHS] partners with the county now and they serve over 15,000 people on an annual basis. So, it started out just helping individuals, serving only a couple hundred people a year, to now a full-blown partner of the county.” — Terry Bellamy, recent Asheville mayor, executive director, ARC of Buncombe County.

“One of the [big ideas during my term] was the whole idea of sustainability and what that meant. It was not a word that was often used in those days, but it certainly applied to what I felt was important to keep in mind as Asheville grew.

The second idea [was] supporting the viability and livability of downtown — .maintaining the architectural history, working to see to it that it became usable — and reusable — by recycling the beautiful buildings for modern-day use, and supporting the early visionaries who were willing to spend the time, spend the money and take the risks to make Asheville’s downtown the happening-est downtown on the East Coast.

The third issue was building on Asheville’s strengths. … Part one was supporting the businesses already here and helping them grow and stay successful. I saw art as a very important part of our economic engine. There were already artists here — great artistic visionaries like John Cram and Connie Bostic — I always felt that supporting the arts was crucial to creating that vision of Asheville.

The second part was, I always saw Asheville as a place where people came to get healthy and be healthy. In those days I talked a lot about building on the existing strengths of our amazing medical community, and incorporating into that medical community all of the complementary modalities that are so much a part of defining Asheville today.” — Leni Sitnick, Asheville’s first woman mayor

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About Jesse Farthing
Jesse Farthing can be reached at jefarthing@gmail.com.

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