Then and now: Asheville Downtown Association turns 25

Downtown Asheville was a profoundly different place back in 1987, when the Asheville Downtown Association was launched. Many of today's landmark buildings were shuttered or hidden behind aluminum façades, and there was very little nightlife. Asheville's now thriving culinary, artistic and cultural scenes were in their infancy.

“When they started the ADA, it was because they believed things could happen,” current President Adrian Vassallo explains. “There were a lot of people putting a lot of time into downtown. Ninety-nine percent of our activity has been volunteer-fueled.”

The ADA will mark its 25th anniversary with an Aug. 11 gala in the U.S. Cellular Center ballroom, where the winners of this year’s “Downtown Heroes” awards will be announced.

“We've gone 25 years, and we're still a vibrant, independent, member-supported organization that brings so many different views together,” he says. “We've got an anomaly here: We're not New York City or Chicago, but we've got such a vibrant, walkable downtown that you can live, work and play in.”

From the beginning, the group has taken a two-pronged approach: holding events such as Downtown After 5 and Oktoberfest to bring folks downtown but also helping research and coordinate efforts to improve the district.

“A lot of people were scared to come out,” remembers longtime volunteer (and former events chair) Rick Ramsey. We used to have the events in a lot of different locations just to get people more familiar with downtown.” Even the roofs of parking garages were pressed into service, to give attendees a bird’s-eye view of the city center.

“I remember calling every friend I had: my parents, my grandparents. We wanted people there,” he recalls with a chuckle.

The organization also researches issues ranging from food trucks to handicapped parking to walkability and helps other groups forge solutions.

“We don't always come out on one side or the other, but we do facilitate discussion,” Vassallo explains. “Asheville's got this creative culture: We've always attracted people with great ideas.”

The ADA’s strong tradition of volunteerism and civic involvement has enabled it to tackle considerable challenges, notes Ramsey.

“I've been on various committees [volunteering with other groups], but I've never felt the way I do about ADA,” he says. “We came as a team; everyone got involved. We saw that we were making a difference.”

Nonetheless, many of the challenges the ADA faced at its inception, such as cleanliness and safety, remain, Ramsey says.

Vassallo, meanwhile, says, “We still struggle with having businesses stay open past 6 p.m.,” and many parts of downtown have yet to be fully revitalized. “There were boarded-up storefronts and places you wouldn't walk around in downtown; those still exist today,” he notes, adding that city government needs to expand its definition of downtown’s boundaries to include places like South Lexington Avenue and the Coxe Avenue/South French Broad area.

But Vassallo also points to such projects as the Lexington Avenue Brewery and French Broad Chocolates expansions as evidence that the next generation of risk-takers is willing to invest in “what downtown could be.”

“We're still looking for the next great idea,” he says. “We're not done with downtown yet: We've got so much canvas left to fill.”

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

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