Asheville’s downtown is more than a mere place, it’s a brand and an economic engine that needs protecting and constant fine-tuning. That was the gist of a presentation by Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Kelly Miller to City Council members at its Oct. 21 meeting.
At issue, Miller said, are problems that plague most cities but which stand out in a city such as Asheville, which calls upon its beauty and special charms to entice visitors and new residents as well as act as a magnet to recruit business. The main problems, he said, are graffiti, filth, litter and garbage, panhandling, predatory towing, downtown construction and repairs that make the city hard to navigate, and poorly lit areas, among other things. And while he lauded the city and especially city staff for trying to tackle the issues, Miller noted many of these problems are getting worse.
“Graffiti, filth, litter, and weeds growing from sidewalks and vacant lots are getting worse,” he said in his report. “Vacant store fronts remain untidy long after tenants have relocated or closed.” Further, he added, panhandling “seems to be increasing and is more aggressive, which translates into the perception that downtown is becoming increasingly unsafe.”
As for predatory towing, he said, “We have got to collectively get our arms around the towing situation. The installation of the BCTDA funded wayfinding project will help direct traffic to public lots, so this should offer some relief. Still, we receive a fair number of letters from both extremely upset visitors and residents whose autos have been towed. The Chamber is ready to roll up its collective sleeves with other groups to come up with deployable solutions and welcome your input.”
“Downtown Asheville, as a stand-alone destination brand, is at a very critical crossroad,” said Miller. “A vibrant, clean, safe, graffiti-free downtown offers enormous strategic advantages for business recruitment, positive visitor experiences, and improved quality of life for residents.”
Miller described the downtown as “a delicate ecosystem,” where it was important to pay attention to details. To that end, a consensus of Council members agreed with Council member Carl Mumpower’s suggestion that the city get to work and put together specially tasked “action groups” to tackle the individual problems outlined by Miller. Mumpower and his fellow Council members agreed that such groups, in order to give them a sense of urgency, be tasked with coming up with workable and commonsense solutions within a 30- or 60-day timeframe.
But whatever these groups suggest, it’ll cost money, warned Council member Holly Jones. She asked Miller whether the city, which is beginning to feel the fallout from the nationwide financial crisis, could count on financial help from the TDA. “We’re already looking at a million-dollar shortfall,” Jones said. “The money’s just not there right now.”
Miller noted that the TDA is just as hard-pressed as the city and noted that hotel revenues are declining. The TDA gets a portion of its funding from hotel-occupancy taxes.
“It’ll be a hard year for us,” Miller said. “Knock on wood, we’ll have a good October.”
For a complete Council report, check out the Oct. 29 edition of Xpress.
— Hal L. Millard, staff writer