In the latest installment of our ongoing series of interviews with Asheville City Council candidates, Jake Frankel talks to Jan Davis about issues ranging from economic development and incentives to affordable housing and campaign strategy. (Audio from the interview included).
Mountain Xpress: You voted to offer Linamar the economic incentives package. But it sounds like you wouldn’t be as supportive of a New Belgium [Brewery] incentives package?
Jan Davis: My inclination is to not. Because it has the potential to harm an industry that’s already existing here and we really have to weigh those issues. But I would not say that I’m totally closed to it. The reality is, even our local brewers — and Oscar Wong is a great personal friend — Oscar has the ability to come forward and say “I’m thinking of expanding and what can you do for me?” Everyone has that potential. …
Are there any general guidelines you follow [in determining] when economic incentives are appropriate or when they’re not?
There’s a clearly outlined policy, and then we have to make the decision. It becomes a human-level thing. … My personal requirements are the job creation, the quality of the job and what it does for the community in general. There’s obviously a lot of industries that would be beneficial to have here. And there’s some that are not.
And I don’t consider New Belgium not beneficial. I think it’d be great if it adds to our “Beer City” thing as long as we don’t hurt our existing industry. … I’d want to consider how much local employees they bring in. If they bring in 100 brewers from somewhere else, that’s not helped us a lot, other than tax dollars. … Our tax incentives are performance based.
What are some of the other things you think the city can do to bring more jobs to the area?
I think it’s very important to make sure that when we craft legislation affecting development ordinances we consider the impact it has on job creation — if our UDO becomes more onerous to deal with. It’s just like the Harris Teeter that’s getting ready to start construction on the old Buick property [at 136 Merrimon Ave.]. That required a zoning change. And if it was so onerous that we couldn’t do that, then they wouldn’t locate here. And that will create jobs and it will create an opportunity for people living nearby there to be able to shop near where they live. They’ll be able to walk to it. … So I think our ordinance creations and what we do to encourage business and quality business is very important. That’s probably the largest one thing we can do.
The other thing we can do is consider the costs of doing business. Our fees and charges oftentimes may have an impact on whether something can be profitable or not here. And fees and charges, whether we like it or not, are a tax. I think there some of the fairest taxes but I think we have to be careful what we do. The CIP fees we have on water meter size, for instance, it adversely impacts a lot of smaller businesses.
It’s looking like next year you’re going to face a budget where you might face some service cuts or you might have to raise revenue. Where do you stand on either cutting services or raising revenues specifically? Do you see areas where services could be cut? Or do you see some areas where you could raise revenues?
I think service provision is very important. I think that’s what people expect when they pay their taxes, a certain level of service. We even have it in our motto: “Our quality of service, your quality of life.” And those things are important to the constituents. …
We’ve had a hard time with our budget for the last five years — since the dissolution of the water agreement — we’ve worked with a constrained budget. … So that’s not anything new to us.
We’ve had to cut back staff and people for a long time. We’ve done that through attrition rather than categorically letting people go, but we’re getting to a point where the jobs are beginning to diminish.
And I think in a downward economy, we could face even more of that. But I will tell you the building permits are up and there are some encouraging signs about the economy here. The population’s growing… So everything’s not bad. …
But I would want our financial officer to consider very conservatively where we’ll go in to the next budget year. And there may be some reality to cutting services that people would want and like to have. And you have to do those incrementally. You have to look and say, “How much do we need this particular amenity?” And if we can find ways of doing it without raising taxes, than I would prefer that. But there will come a time if the economy doesn’t improve, when we will have to make a decision to either increase taxes or cut services dramatically to where people feel them.
And I think there are many things that people would prefer to pay a little bit more tax then to do without. Core services are important to me. That’s public safety. A fire department that’s very responsive. A police department that’s very responsive. Issues of sanitation. Those are things that people want and expect. …
Are there any areas that you think could be first in line to trim if you had to?
I would want a very detailed staff report outlining what opportunities lie there. …
People love Asheville. They come here, they utilize the streets, all the stuff, the amenities. Our population in May almost doubles. They’re here shopping and eating and doing things, but it’s not paying equitably for the amount of love they’re putting into the city.
At some point you have to say, “We’ve got to do these things to make the city better.”
And I know all the candidates have been talking very adamantly about the streets and sidewalks and want to cast a lot of stones about the provision of those things. But we have dedicated a CIP fund for the next five years that … allocates $5 million for some of those infrastructure needs. That is sidewalks.
We put a lot of sidewalks on the ground. It is greenways. But those are things I would give up — and this will crucify me — those are things I would give up before I give up public safety. But I think there’s room for all of those things if the community wants them.
Would you support the idea of a bonds referendum? Putting that choice before the voters?
That would be the way we’d have to get there. I think it would require a big education campaign. And I wouldn’t want to put it in place at a time I felt like it would fail. So that’s not something I think we need to be going into immediately.
But that’s the only way I would be supportive of a bond, to get at the community and see if that’s what they want.
What about affordable housing? … What path forward do you see to increase affordable housing options in the city?
Fortunately, I’ve had a great look at that the last couple years, as I’m one of the three people who sit on the Housing and Community Development Committee (that’s the committee that actually makes the recommendations for allocations of CDBG funding, Housing Trust Fund funding, outside agency funding). …
Our greatest need is affordable rent property, apartments and that sort of thing. The opportunities to create those from a city standpoint — as we’re seeing those funds on a national level start drying up — is to partner with groups, whether they be for-profit or nonprofit, to build that sort of housing.
I think there’s a great opportunity with riverfront redevelopment. I think there’s some land down there that might be the catalyst. To have some mixed-income housing in the riverfront area.
The realities of putting workforce or affordable housing near where people work is a very good thing. But everybody doesn’t work downtown, so we have to consider other places where people work and make sure we’re doing the right job to incentivize for-profits and nonprofits to develop housing.
The Housing Trust Fund we’ve not been able to fund fully the last several years, but we get great bang for the buck on that. So as the economy improves, that would be another direction, to improve the Housing Trust Fund. That pays itself back and it’s been very successful in helping our partners build affordable housing.
Another issue I’ve heard a lot of people speak about this year is the city’s relationship with the General Assembly in Raleigh. You’ve been on the Council awhile now. Do you see that relationship worse now than it’s been in years past? If so, what do you think can be done to improve things?
I think that with the change of paradigm in Raleigh, we’ve been sort of hurt. Our water system is in a study committee to see if they can actually remove that from Asheville’s authority. I regret that.
I think that with the Airport Authority, the board made … a move to have that become an independent authority without even talking to us up front. I think that was encouraged by a member of our delegation. So I think we’re in an adverse situation.
On the other hand, I think we’ve had great opportunities to sit down with the delegation — probably in recent times more than we had a few years ago. Although the former delegation and leadership did a great job for us when we had all our difficulties with the dissolution of the water agreement. And ultimately they saw that we were such good stewards of that system that they allowed us to use 5 percent of the revenue stream for replacement of infrastructure needs when we put new piping in to the ground. …
And I value our relationship today with the legislators. I think Rep. Moffitt has a much greater feel… We met with him individually — Council member [Esther] Manheimer and myself — we had a great opportunity to talk to him about the study committees. And I found him to be very receptive to what we were saying.
I’m sure, politically, it’s a different time and place than it’s been in past years. But at least we have a conversation going.
And something I’m very proud of is I think we have the very best relationship with the [Buncombe County Board of] Commissioners we’ve had in my entire tenure on Council. …
What are some of the other things your most proud of accomplishing in this last term?
In this last term — obviously I’ve been working on it for several terms, is the fate of the Civic Center — and recognizing that we could not build a new one. And I’m personally in favor of where the old one is, to be able to develop partnerships that have resulted in it being refurbished. It’s going to be a building that will take us many years out. It will be a quality gathering place.
It will be a great event center with the refurbishment by the partnerships that I helped form. That one I’m very proud of. And part of the reason I want to stay on Council … We were successful with a bid for the Southern Conference’s return. At the same time we put together a sports commission. And the county, the city, the Tourism Development Authority, UNCA, have all been at that table. And these relationships have been what’s enabled that to happen.
We’re going to get the next three years of the tournament here, which will enable us to have better entertainment in the building because it will be refurbished and feel good and entertainers will want to come. So these are economic drivers for our downtown and that’s very important. …
Downtown issues are important to me. As a business owner downtown, I served on the [Asheville] Downtown Commission and was a proponent of bringing the Downtown Master Plan to fruition. I haven’t liked everything about it, but it was giving consideration to what the future holds for this city. …
I particularly enjoy my position on the Asheville area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission. I helped start that commission. I was one of the founding members. And I’m seeing a lot of good work, a lot of collaboration among property owners down there. … That’s our new frontier. That’s our new opportunity, which will be very much like the downtown and its rebirth. That’s a big issue to me. … I enjoy being part of that. …
You know the biggest thing I’ve brought to Council in the eight years I’ve been there is consensus building and trying to look at things pragmatically and trying to get to a better way of life for everybody.
I’m not so locked in to a position that I won’t change. And I’m not so locked in to my preconceived ideas that I won’t be open to new ones. … I’ve brought balance to a lot of issues.
Speaking of having the ability to change your mind on things: You had originally voted against offering domestic partnership benefits to city employees …
That’s correct, I voted against that issue because, mainly, the way it was brought forward. It was brought as a reactionary move rather than … “what it’s going to cost, how it’s going to affect people, the degree of difficulty it will create in the community.” And I later voted for the equality measure. Because I seriously do feel that we’re all created equal and that sexual orientation is not an item that differentiates people and that they should be differently.
So why that change exactly?
Because they’re two different issues. The first had been brought forward without being thought out how to do it, what it implied as far as cost.
As you may know, I was involved in trying to offer the community a racetrack near the airport several years ago… it seemed like a good thing to do. But rather than just walk in and say, “Staff, we’re going to have a racetrack, I have enough votes to do it, build it, or seek people to build it.” That’s much what he [Council member Gordon Smith] did when he came in with domestic-partner benefits. He just walked in and said “do it.” There was no staff report. There was nothing there I could vote for.
It was a good idea. But at the end of the day, we’ve only had two employees take advantage of that.
Was the process different for the Equality Resolution?
Yes, there was much more thought, there was consensus built. There was an examination of the cost, an examination of how to do it, some ideas put in place about what department would handle it.
We’ve only had 25 of those registered, but it’s been a very important thing to those 25 people.
Are there any votes that you’ve made in this last term that you’ve regretted? Or anything you could have done a better job on?
I think there’s always an opportunity to say, “I wish I had voted a different way.”
I was trying to be supportive of the Ingles expansion. Because they were in the process of making a decision about their lighting …. expanding their location there at the Skyland store. They wanted a sign package and a lighting package. The lighting was way out of context for where they were at. But at the same time we were making a consideration about them locating their warehouse here or in a different city altogether, which represents 600 jobs.
So I really felt like we needed to be supportive of them. But quite frankly, it was the wrong call. It was too much change to our ordinance. And I regret having done the lighting portion of that.
How are you going to win this thing this year? What’s your campaign strategy going forward?
Well, I think when you’re there eight years, people are either going to vote you back in, or they’re not.
I’m taking it seriously. We’ve got signs. We’re trying to raise money. We’re doing all the things a campaign person does.
But at the end of the day, I think people are either going to be supportive of what I have done, or they’re not. They may send me fishing for the rest of my life, which is great, but I hope they keep me on because I think I bring a lot to the Council. I want to be there because I love this community. And being in that position, I feel like I do a good job of representing a lot of people in this community.