The five Asheville City Council candidates squared off at the Council of Independent Business Owners’ forum yesterday afternoon as this year’s campaign entered its final stretch. Many of the topics discussed had been dealt with at previous forums, with some exceptions. In this case, the candidates questioned each other, and spoke frankly about their thoughts on development and NIMBYism.
The site was different from their usual venue: for years, CIBO has had their forums at Magnolia’s restaurant, which recently closed. This one was, instead, at an unused retail space in the Biltmore Square Mall. About 40 people, mostly CIBO members, showed up to munch Chik-fil-A and see the candidates’ responses.
Part of the format was also a major difference from previous forums, which usually limit questions to those from a moderator or the audience. Instead, all of the candidates got to question their opponents directly.
Former Coleman CEO Gwen Wisler admitted that she “wasn’t really prepared for this” but asked former Asheville Police Department officer Mike Lanning, who’s run primarily on improving conditions for law enforcement, how he hoped to improve retention at the APD.
“The biggest concern is accountability,” Lanning replied. “Once you get to a certain point, Captain and above, you’re in that circle. Each chief, for some reason, has only listened to that inner circle. He’ll listen to input of other officers, but he’d never act on it until one of the inner circle brought that issue up.”
Addressing problems with leadership, he said, “would go a long way.”
Community activist Jonathan Wainscott asked Wisler what she thought of his plan to bottle the city’s water and sell it to make extra revenue.
“I certainly think it’s innovative,” Wisler answered. “Seeing what would be legal and what the city could do to be a better revenue generator is something to explore.” She added that she didn’t know how profitable bottled water would prove, and that topic also requires more research.
Council member Gordon Smith took some issue with the question, asserting that “in this kind of race, where there’s three seats, five candidates, I don’t really feel like I have any opponents up here.” He then asked fellow Council member Cecil Bothwell if he supported extending bus service to Sundays.
“Absolutely, I support Sunday service and holiday service,” Bothwell said. “People have jobs, and the people who depend on transit for getting to those jobs, and the businesses that depend on those workers need the transit system to be there for them. If a person can’t get to work on Sunday, that’s going to hurt their employability.”
He added that he’ll try to fund a “downtown circulator” bus route to help get downtown service workers back home from their jobs late at night.
Lanning asked Bothwell and Smith if they would remain committed to healthcare subsidies for the city’s retirees. Both said they remained committed to honoring the city’s promises, but would remain aware of changes in healthcare law, with Smith noting that healthcare is shifting to less employer-based than it used to be.
Bothwell asked Wainscott to give examples of enterprise revenues he’d pursue besides bottling water.
Wainscott pointed to empty concession stands in city parks and charge nonprofits more for using city facilities.
“We could open up the concession stands to local food uses, maybe the culinary arts program at A-B Tech,” he said. “We need to charge people to use the assets we have on hand.
During the time for audience questions, developer (and occasional Xpress columnist Jerry Sternberg) asked about how some of the candidates’ commitment to density and in-fill development would square when faced with “the NIMBY effect,” citing some neighborhood opposition to the New Belgium brewery, and the Larchmont affordable housing complex.
“This happens time and time again and discourages developers who spend a lot of money pre-planning then walk into City Council to find the NIMBYs have made it so expensive that they’re not going to come back,” Sternberg told the candidates in asking how they’d handle that situation. “And don’t tell me it’s talking to the neighborhood, because those are just public lynchings.”
Bothwell noted that he “couldn’t agree more that that too often happens. Our decisions have to be based on sound policy. We’re trying to get more density along transit corridors, I think we should expand our density bonus to a quarter mile, so we have a way of helping developers develop more near those transit corridors.”
Lanning noted that “Asheville protests anything and everything it can,” and the city had to strike a balance, using incentives to bring in bigger business.
Smith said that the city needed to reexamine its development policies to make more density near major corridors something that was allowed already.
“What we have to do is get the policy right to make the process predictable, and then stick to the policy,” Smith said. “We need to have it in the code that there’s these by-right density corridors where folks can come, see what they can do, and come in and get it done. The policy creation time is when you have the input from the neighborhood.”
Wisler agreed about the policies, and emphasized about the need to “communicate to Ashevilleans that the people they’re electing are supporting density. That doesn’t mean you don’t get input, but they need to understand that the people that are running for public office and that they’re electing support these policies.”
Wainscott, however, proclaimed himself the “number one NIMBY” and reasserted his opposition to the New Belgium brewery plans.
“It’s unfortunate that the NIMBY label gets thrown around, the neighbors weren’t concerned about one truck, they were concerned about 104 trucks,” he asserted, before mentioning that he supported an alternate plan that would have located different parts of the brewery elsewhere. “I submitted an alternative plan, and I can tell you that this is the most creative, impressive plan you’ve ever laid your eyes on. I have, at every challenge, looked for an actual solution so it’s win-win.”