Voicing different ideas about funding the Asheville Art Museum, adopting the living wage ordinance and deciding downtown development, the trio of political candidates vying to be Asheville’s next mayor debated with one another for the first time on Wednesday while also revealing a shared consensus among them about the perceived relationship between the General Assembly and the City of Asheville.
More than 100 people attended the forum hosted by Leadership Asheville at the Asheville Country Club. Fielding questions written by attendees on 3×5 notecards, former vice mayor and current vice president of Leadership Asheville Edward Hay served as moderator for the event. When Hay asked candidates how they would handle Asheville’s relationship with a hostile state legislature in the first question of the forum, Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, former city Risk Management Director John Miall and downtown waiter and community activist Martin Ramsey all said that Asheville was being targeted by the sate General Assembly.
“A hostile legislature is what we have on our hands,” Manheimer said. “I don’t think any one person can be effective in leading this community unless you’re able to work collaboratively with others. You have got to create partnerships if you are going to be effective, and especially in dealing with our legislature.” She specifically referenced when City Council wrote a League of Municipalities resolution written in support of Asheville’s efforts to keep its water system. Manheimer said that 50 cities in total signed the resolution when all was said and done.
Miall said he applauded the resolution, but urged that more could have been done if council members had tried to mobilize their constituents to vote certain legislators out of office.
“We need to galvanize the support that puts our local people in office and grow that out into the community around us,” he said.
Echoing his opening statements about the importance of reaching out to voters, Ramsey said that the General Assembly could change within the next two years.
“For the time being, let’s try to keep them from burning the place down as fast as they can,” Ramsey told forum attendees.
When asked about the funding of the Asheville Art Museum, Ramsey used the decision as an example for why his campaign is advocating for the city to adopt participatory budgeting, a process by which local taxpayers and citizens can directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.
“That is going to require us to have discussions about what it is that we actually want to do with limited money and abilities to implement those things,” he said, saying that when the power lies with five or six people to make decisions “that’s fundamentally undemocratic and I don’t support that.”
Miall, however, said he is “1,000 percent opposed” to the $2 million City Council allocated for renovations and repair work to the Asheville Art Museum.
“Where are the metrics?” he asked. “Where are the objective measurable outcomes that the 9,000 paying visitors who passed through the art museum last year — even if that number doubled — where’s the numbers that tell us that was an economic development? I’m really turned off with the sacred cows in the city budget.”
But Manheimer defended the decision. She said that cities like Asheville depend on property taxes for its main revenue source.
“When you have a robust art museum in your downtown, it raises the property values in the entire surrounding area. We will get a return on this investment very soon and it is a wise investment and it is in keeping with this growing stability of our revenue base going forward,” she said. Manheimer also said that the $2 million represents about 10 percent of the funds necessary to cover the repairs needed at the Asheville Art Museum. Until the museum can privately fundraise the rest of the necessary capital, Manheimer said the Asheville Art Museum will not receive the $2 million.
After taking questions submitted by members of the audience, Hay asked the candidates to write their own question to ask their fellow candidates. Referencing the nearly 10,000 in attendance at the Mountain Moral Monday demonstration this summer, Ramsey asked Manheimer and Miall whether they would be willing to get behind some of the ideas represented there, including worker’s rights and a living wage.
Manheimer cited the city’s adoption of a living wage, which requires that contractors with Asheville pay their workers a living wage. However, on Friday the state passed a bill that essentially voids these living wage ordinances not only in Asheville but across the state. For Miall, he told the audience that, “On the issue of living wage, my personal jury is still out on that. I’ve read studies where those types of things typically can drive inflation. If landlords and merchants realize that people in the community have more disposable income, the cost of rent and everything else goes up accordingly. I’m not sure to what end we achieve with living wages if that’s true. I would think that we need to study that.”
Miall also said that more dialogue is needed regarding the property in front of St. Lawrence Basilica, which the City of Asheville sold to McKibbon Hotel Group to build a hotel and plaza on the city-owned property across from the St. Lawrence Basilica.
Ramsey called the decision to sell the property “a poor use of public space.” However, he said he was torn in some ways about it, too, since money earned from the sale may go to help build more public housing. He asked, “Is tourism working for Asheville, or is Asheville working for tourism?”
Manheimer said the Downtown Master Plan guided Council’s decision to sell the property.
“There were several committees, hundreds of people that volunteered time to determine how our community sees the vision for downtown,” Manheimer said of the creation of the master plan. “It’s that basis that we have now to make all decisions concerning downtown; and that foundation is very important to help guide the city council in making decisions about land in the downtown area.”
Throughout the event, applause levels varied for each candidate. However, the sound of support did not indicate a clear crowd favorite.
At the end of the nearly 45-minute forum, Hay addressed the people in attendance, saying, “I know you’ll agree with me that we’ve got a very interesting mayor’s race on our hands.”
Caitlin Byrd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 251-1333, ext. 140.