Who’s improving whom?

Plan of Action: With this agenda for its June 5 meeting, the StopAVLBID group — an “ad-hoc coalition” opposed to a Business Improvement District for downtown Asheville — discussed tactics. photo by Max Cooper
Plan of Action: With this agenda for its June 5 meeting, the StopAVLBID group — an “ad-hoc coalition” opposed to a Business Improvement District for downtown Asheville — discussed tactics. photo by Max Cooper

About 40 people gathered in Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium for a June 5 forum on the proposed business improvement district for downtown Asheville. The event was organized by StopAVLBID, and many in attendance opposed the idea. The group describes itself as a coalition that “includes activists working within the Occupy movement, local cooperatives, community media, downtown employees, anti-poverty advocates and the Asheville Homeless Network.”

The plan would create an independent nonprofit, funded by a special tax on downtown properties, that would provide sanitation and security services beyond what the city provides. Most of the organization’s board members would be downtown property owners. In recent weeks, various groups have criticized the tax burden, lack of input and accountability, and gentrification that they believe a BID would entail. At press time, Council was slated to consider the proposal at its June 12 meeting.

Ironically, the opponents met in the same space where supporters had presented their proposal back in March. During the forum, many questions focused on the BID’s structure and on the role of uniformed ambassadors who would help visitors and clean the streets but also serve as “eyes and ears,” in the words of one proponent, to report illegal behavior.

Martin Ramsey, a local waiter and activist, criticized the makeup of the BID’s board, specifically the proposal to assign seats based on property holdings. A block of seats on the 13-member board, for example, would be reserved for those owning at least $3 million worth of downtown property.  “There’s no other government agency that works this way: It’s undemocratic,” he charged.

John Spitzberg, a retired social worker who’s active with the Asheville Homeless Network, said that BIDs can represent “different paradigms” than the one proposed for Asheville, adding that in some cities, BIDs actually benefit marginalized communities.

Debra Wells, who owns the Instant Karma boutique, worried about how much of the property-tax increase would get passed on to small-business owners, and about the BID’s impact on the city’s artistic subcultures. “I’m kind of intimidated, because I think the owner of my building is for it,” she said, adding, “I’m concerned about the repercussions,” she said.

A number of BID proponents were also on hand. Former Asheville Downtown Association head Joe Minicozzi, who helped create the plan and came armed with a big bag of cigarette butts, said the BID would reduce reliance on volunteers for cleanups and other needed services.

Adorn Salon owner Rebecca Hecht said she’s “scared to death” of large corporations intruding into downtown. BIDs, she maintained, can help prevent that by creating a common platform for advocacy. “There’s nothing to protect us from that right now,” she argued. “There’s no organization to advocate against that; we’re just lucky it’s not been an issue.”

Franzi Charen of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance also said a BID is needed to stop corporate intrusion and coordinate community action.

Several people expressed sympathy with Charen’s goals but said the BID is not the way to achieve them.

“I don’t want box stores downtown, but I don’t see why the business improvement district is a better vehicle for keeping them out than the one we already have, which is a great City Council,” said a man named Scott. “The experience everyone has downtown is going to be affected by this. I do think you’ll find it will create more homogenization than diversity.”

He added that ambassadors serving as “eyes and ears” would amount to a private security force, saying, “I’d like to know what they’re looking for.”

Natalie Nicole asked audience members who didn’t own downtown property to raise their hands. Most did, and she told BID proponents, “These are all the people who will not have voices. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned [BID board members] might be. When you give them power over others and there’s not accountability, they’ll abuse it.”

Asheville resident Margaret Mary, a recent arrival, warned that in Atlanta’s BID, ambassadors started out simply giving directions to visitors but have ended up harassing minorities and the homeless.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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