The art of politics in Buncombe County

Jolene Mechanic is playing the numbers by calling a meet-the-candidates forum in the River Arts District on Tuesday, Oct. 9. And she’ll even tell you the winning figure ahead of time: 43,749,707.

That translates to $43.7 million dollars, or the total direct economic impact of the business of arts and culture in Buncombe County. It also translates to the equivalent of 1,427 fulltime jobs, Mechanic points out, citing figures from a study by Americans for the Arts .

“So I’m sitting here thinking, wow — this is what we’ve been contributing,” Mechanic says of the artistic community around her. “Maybe the local candidates should take note of that and do something to protect the economic impact.” And that became of her motivation to pull together a political forum focused on the arts.

Mechanic is the maven and co-owner of the Phil Mechanic Studios on Roberts Street — a warren of studio and gallery spaces with a biodiesel business in the basement that’s husband Mitch Mechnic‘s purview. But Mechanic isn’t very sure that the successful hum of the group housed there will continue.

“I’m not hopeful that we can save this district from gentrification. I think it’s lost. I think city seems to be interested in beer and cocktails,” Mechanic laments. “I know that the beer has economic impact, but let me ask you this: Would you drive from Atlanta just to buy a beer?”

“When you’re sitting here in your business and the Wedge is sold to investors, who do you trust? What are you going to do?” Mechanic continues. “I know people like to say several of these buildings are owned by artists, [but]  how deep are the pockets? If property tax goes insane — just because I own the building doesn’t mean I’m going to keep it,” she says, referring to the property reappraisals slated by the county for next year.

So Mechanic invited all 13 candidates for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to what she says is the “first and only” candidate event to specifically address the artistic, creative sector in the city and county. And she asked them to bring along a piece of art that has personal value or meaning for them, as a way of introducing themselves to the audience.

Mechanic thinks the county will be the next colonization target for artists, she says. So she took herself out to drive the county line, looking for community resources where clusters of artists might thrive. She expects movement towards Marshall and Madison County, or perhaps Barnardsville. And she thinks Buncombe County could expand the footprint of the economic impact involved in that $43.7 million per year.

The organizer sent a questionnaire to the county candidates in preparation for the panel discussion, asking how Buncombe County might protect and encourage the arts organizations generating the jobs, incomes, and government revenues cited in the study. And in light of the $8.5 million incentive promised by the city to New Belgium Brewery, she asked whether the county would offer incentives to artists and business owners in general to locate in the county. She also pointed to a potential 2-to-1 matching grant available from the N.C. Arts Council to expand programming from the city into the county.

“I’m not one to present a problem without suggestions for solution,” Mechanic says of the matching grant idea.

“I hope that we can just bridge all kinds of cultures between the city and the county. Artists are culture creators, and we know how to enrich people’s quality of life. We have the imagination; we want to share it.”

by Nelda Holder, contributing editor

The River Arts District forum takes place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. in the Flood Gallery, Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts Street. Five of the 13 candidates have confirmed attendance at this date: Holly Jones, David King, Brownie Newman, Terry Van Duyn, and David Gantt (candidate for chair).

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