This week Terry Bellamy gave her farewell address after eight years as Asheville’s mayor; a time of considerable change for the city. This Tuesday, Dec. 10, Mayor-elect Esther Manheimer will take up the gavel.
During Bellamy’s tenure, the city has increased funding for affordable housing (something she fought for), finalized (and implemented parts of) the Downtown Master Plan, weathered a recession, dealt with tight budgets and publicly sparred with Raleigh over the fate of the water system and other issues. Towards the end of her time, the city saw major companies like Linamar and New Belgium locate facilities in Asheville after economic incentive deals with the city. Asheville also emerged from the recession with the lowest unemployment rate in the state, a point of pride for her and Council.
Bellamy, who worked in the nonprofit field before becoming mayor, also had no shortage of controversy. She lost a number of battles with the rest of Council over resolutions involving domestic partner benefits and LGBT equality. In one particular tense meeting, Bellamy referred to some of the criticism as “a lie from the pit of hell.”
She voted against some budgets in recent years when she felt they had inadequate compensation for city staff or hadn’t followed the proper process. Bellamy was also a major proponent of a downtown Business Improvement District, a controversial proposal that faltered due to governance concerns and budget issues.
According to both city and county officials, relations improved considerably under Bellamy’s leadership. In 2005, public fights between officials, especially over the fate of the water system, were a common sight. Now most of the time city and county officials appear together, it’s to announce their cooperation on an economic incentive deal or similar endeavor. Buncombe County Commissioners Chair David Gantt, along with commissioners from both parties, were at Bellamy’s farewell speech, and she publicly praised him for the renewed comity.
The city’s first African-American mayor, Bellamy said during her farewell speech that her journey to Asheville’s top elected post is a lesson in determination.
“You can be anyone you want to be,” she said. “Someone from Klondyke [housing project], whose grandmother used to clean rooms here, has been mayor here. Don’t let anything stop you.”
Esther Manheimer, an attorney with the prominent Van Winkle law firm, rolled into Council in 2009 the top vote-getter, and her colleagues unanimously made her Vice Mayor two years later. She’s represented the city on a number of fronts, including during the recent fight with the state legislature over the water system. She’s also dealt with both lean budgets and the city’s incentive deals as chair of Council’s finance and economic development committees.
Like the other members of Council, she’s a Democrat, though generally perceived as a moderate: Manheimer’s supporters range from conservative developers to progressive activists. She heads into the mayor’s office after a landslide victory in the November elections, drawing over 60 percent of the vote. On election night, Manheimer said she’ll concentrate on a number of issues, including the environment, equality and economic development.
Some of that will mean continuing current policies: Manheimer said the election results showed city residents believe the government’s direction is the right one. She praised Bellamy, but promised a different management style focused on measuring specific progress towards the city’s many goals.
But so far on Council, Manheimer hasn’t completely avoided controversy either. Notably, she verbally sparred with Occupy Asheville protesters during their interactions with the city and later led the successful push on Council to expel their camp from a spot nearby City Hall. Critics asserted that her backing (along with most of the rest of Council) of $2 million for the Asheville Art Museum in this year’s budget vote was driven by personal connection instead of the city’s best interests.
In the coming years and months, Manheimer will face ongoing issues with the state legislature, continued economic concerns and, as if that wasn’t enough, a growing city population divided over development and worried about low wages combined with rising living costs. How she will deal with those issues, and how it will shape Asheville’s future, remains an open question.