Early this morning, in the food court of the Biltmore Square mall, members of the Council of Independent Business Owners gathered to hear elected officials from Buncombe County and the city of Asheville summarize their situations and goals.
The setting was perhaps appropriate, as the mall has seen businesses leave and many spots in the food court were shuttered. The economic downturn was a major topic of discussion.
Asheville City Council member Jan Davis said the financial situation has put the city in sometimes dire strait — facing a $5 million deficit — and he believes the situation could be spreading.
“Merrimon Avenue is blighted, it’s shutting down, Patton Avenue west of the river is blighted, the blight is spreading to downtown,” Davis observed. “I’ve seen downtown revive. We don’t want to go back to the other end of the scale, and it can happen.”
Davis also called for cooperation with the county and took aim at comments by Buncombe commissioners’ Chair David Gantt to the Asheville Citizen-Times that the city couldn’t expect “a sugar daddy” in the county.
“Beyond the rhetoric and the ‘sugar daddy’ comments, we need trust and cooperation,” Davis said, adding that the mayor and Council are “asking for partnerships, opportunities that benefit both our citizens. Our doors are open.”
In response to CIBO members advising the city to cut more items they view as frivolous, Davis defended city spending on buses and greenways, asserting that buses help workers get to their jobs and “without them, you’ll have a whole other problem,” while “ when you can go down and see 5,000 people using the greenways on the weekend; that indicates something that our citizens support.”
He also defended a controversial vote against adopting domestic partnership benefits in concept but stated he was against how the measure had been raised.
“It was a process thing, not a morality issue; I didn’t like how it got there,” Davis said. “The city’s doing an assessment of its health care costs and I think it would have been less divisive to bring it up then.”
He also said that while no one on Council wanted to raise property taxes, it might have to be considered. “I don’t advocate tax increases right now, but the time may come when that’s necessary to keep this a good place to live.”
Davis’ description of the budget situation stood in contrast to that of the county, as Vice Chair Bill Stanley, who took the podium afterwards, observed, “We’re in pretty good shape. We don’t have a deficit. We have a good fund balance.”
Not everything is sweetness and light, however, and Stanley noted that social services expenditures for the county have drastically increased due to the economy, with the demand for food stamps tripling. He’s also concerned that the state could raid more county funds and sources of revenue to meet its own budget demands. “The state is hurt, and they’re going to hurt us.”
For those reasons, he said, he advocated the county stay away from “rules and regulations that limit people and businesses getting work,” and while endorsing more city-county cooperation, he said the county’s fund balance wasn’t the way to do it.
“Our sugar might just taste like licorice,” he cautioned.
Last in front of the gathered business people was Council member Gordon Smith, who built on the themes of city-county cooperation and says he sees potential for Asheville becoming a “high-tech regional center.”
“There are things we can do as a city to make ourselves more attractive so that when businesses like Google are looking to site new projects, Asheville is an attractive place,” he said. “If you look at the cities where these high-tech jobs are concentrated in — San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis — these are places that are inclusive, diverse. They have multiple modes of transportation and housing you can afford.”
Specifically, Smith said he was communicating with Council members about how to best pursue getting one of Google’s recently proposed super-fast broadband networks, and he added that it will take the cooperation of multiple county governments, the city and organizations like CIBO for the push to have a chance of success.
Smith also said that the city plans to deal with its budget situation by cutting costs and raising fees, and that raising property taxes is a last resort.
“We need to have exhausted every last possibility before we even look at that,” he said. “Because that’s something that hits everybody and it hits people hard.”
—David Forbes, staff writer