About 20 years ago, when a group of residents, business owners, local-government staff and elected officials were trying to revive a largely derelict downtown Asheville, “It was discouraging when we saw things printed in the newspaper like, ‘All they’re doing is moving the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic.’” That’s how Tops for Shoes co-owner Bob Carr, speaking at a Feb. 28 Asheville Downtown Association celebration, described the early days of the revitalization effort.
The association was capping a two-day conference that night, handing out its Downtown Heroes awards to individuals, businesses, and groups that helped make Asheville’s central district what it is today. Former Director of Downtown Development Leslie Anderson, Tops for Shoes, and Public Interest Projects were this year’s recipients.
As the city’s director of downtown development from 1986-95, Anderson oversaw $63 million in private investment in the business district and was one of the people responsible for the creation of the ADA. She used her acceptance speech to praise some of the lesser known individuals who played roles in downtown’s revitalization, like Rick Ramsey and Grace Pless. “As time progresses … the more I realize our intentions and success in involving hundreds of people, of all types, from all sectors, how important this was in our revitalization story,” she said.
Carr and his wife Ellen, owners of Tops for Shoes, have been downtown for at least three decades: The iconic 30,000 square foot shoe store has been in the family since Ellen’s parents Louis and Sylvia Resnikoff first opened a general store back in 1952. When other stores were either closing or flocking to the Asheville Mall in the 1970s, the Carrs stuck around. Bob Carr joked that Anderson was a “task master” when it came to keeping him involved in the revitalization effort (he was the ADA’s first president).
PIP, the development company founded by the late Julian Price in 1990, invested millions of dollars into at least 18 downtown business including Laughing Seed Cafe, The Orange Peel, and Mountain Xpress. Accepting the award for PIP were President Pat Whalen and Vice-President Karen Ramshaw. Whalen remembered Julian Price as a person who wanted to make downtown a viable alternative for people in Asheville: When Price would bemoan the amount of money being spent or the challenges they faced, Whalen recalled, “Julian said, ‘You know we’re just trying to give people a choice, so they can choose downtown.’”