Asheville on a pedestal: What the success stories miss

Asheville on a pedestal: What the success stories miss-attachment0

“I can see my house from here.”

“In fact, that is my house.”

Those were my first thoughts reading over Emily Badger’s Atlantic Cities piece extolling Asheville’s downtown revitalization as a model for other cities to restore their fiscal health. First up was none other than the Asheville Hotel, a subject I’m pretty well acquainted with, as I’ve lived there for some years.

Badger’s pithy and well-analyzed post is certainly welcome: I always like to see Asheville’s success stories get the attention they deserve. I chose to make downtown my home, and I enjoy living here.

However, as the national eye is turning to our fine city, it’s worth adding the necessary grains (or shaker, to be honest) of salt into the mix. Visitors coming into town with cash to blow all too often only see one side of our city. That side isn’t false, but it misses a lot. Asheville’s story is much more complex, and those wrinkles reveal a lot about topics that commonly get short shrift in discussions about urban futures.

Let’s start at the same place Badger’s story does. The Asheville Hotel is notable not just as a revitalization success story, but also because its owners wisely keep the rent comparatively affordable. They’re an exception. Bluntly, many of those working in downtown can’t remotely afford to live here, and it gets worse. Asheville area wages are almost $100 less a week than the state average. Over a third of our population is low-income. The people who make our city work often don’t even have enough to eat: we’re third in the country in food hardship.

In those circumstances, it’s easy to see how many citizens become disillusioned and indeed, our local voter turnout is repeatedly anemic. Even extending the type of density Badger extolls outside of downtown remains a major political fight.

Yes, the city of Asheville has seen increased revenues from downtown, but that’s not enough to save it from the annual ritual of tackling a budget crunch (the city has its own report on the issue). In part this is because many of the people who use Asheville’s services don’t pay property taxes here, and the city’s ability to generate revenue is further limited by the control the state legislature exerts over local affairs. Relations with Raleigh haven’t exactly improved lately: there’s a battle over the fate of the water system going on right now that may result in the state taking it from Asheville entirely.

Urbanism discussions often do an excellent job of assessing the factors highlighted in Badger’s piece — development, finances, tax revenue — and those are certainly important. But in the long run political participation, the opportunities available to working citizens, and the balance of power with outside authorities play an even greater role in how a city lives or dies.

Twenty years ago, Asheville pulled off a miracle, turning blocks of derelict buildings into a cultural and economic powerhouse. While rightly held up as an example for others, tackling today’s thornier problems will truly determine if our city has a future.

In that, the downtown revival can offer a lesson: the best way to face this is head-on.

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10 thoughts on “Asheville on a pedestal: What the success stories miss

  1. bill smith

    Shhhhhh. Don’t scare the tourists. Everything’s fine. Just an idyllic utopia, nothing else.

  2. D. Dial

    Does anyone else wonder what Advantage West and the C o C and our local leadership, has been doing all these years toward bringing in better paying businesses? Government and Medical are the two biggies here, with well paying jobs. And I’ll bet those good jobs go to insiders. Tourism and food are both service industries…which are notoriously low wage jobs.

    • Mark Cates

      D. Dial,

      Yes, people do wonder. Some even invest a great deal of time and money trying to bring focus to the very issues you mention.

  3. mat catastrophe

    I think one answer would be to start pushing City Council to expand its “living wage” legislation to include downtown restaurants and hotels.

    Oh, and yes, I’m certain that there would be a great weeping and gnashing of teeth from some quarters. Unfortunately for them, it’s become pretty obvious after a decade or low taxes that helping the wealthy does not create jobs or benefit the poor and working classes.

  4. tatuaje

    I think the city legislating what companies pay their employees is a terrible idea. It’s one thing if they’ll only use businesses that are living-wage certified themselves (and commendable), but to tell local businesses they have to comply seems far over-reaching. Raise the minimum wage. Make it applicable to servers. But leave that to the state/feds.

    One of the things that needs to happen is for the city to have more say regarding where and how hotel taxes are spent. The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, made up of mostly hotel industry folks (which is actually required by law), should not be deciding where millions of dollars of taxes are spent. I mean, did Navitat, a private company that by all accounts is doing just fine on their own, deserve half a million dollars that could have gone towards improving our city? Right there is a ton of money that would easy the city’s budget crunch.

    The other thing that would continue Asheville’s improvement is the revitalization of riverfront properties. Cities like Minneapolis (http://bit.ly/H4luDG) and La Crosse, WI (http://bit.ly/Hsyepj) have done an amazing job in this area and have benefitted from it tremendously with the help of their respective local governments. It’s time for Asheville to increase its tax base by doing the same.

    • mat catastrophe

      The state and feds are far too beholden to the corporate money that keeps the minimum wage artificially low. And why would it matter who institutes the law – aren’t most business owners opposed to it no matter who is legislating it?

      I wasn’t aware of the hotel tax thing…that’s a very good point there.

    • tatuaje

      Sorry Mat, somehow missed your comment…

      I agree that lobbyists make keeping the minimum wage in-line with reality a near impossible task.

      Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I realize there is no reason that local government can’t legislate in this matter.

      “Santa Monica, Calif., briefly boasted a living-wage law requiring private employers that had revenues of more than $5 million per year and that operated in the city’s tourist district to pay their employees at least $10.50 an hour plus health benefits, or $13 an hour without benefits. The first such law to cover employers having no direct financial relationship with the city, it was repealed by a narrow margin after a massive campaign funded by the hotel industry amid charges of deception and electoral manipulation. Asheville could be a national leader in living-wage efforts by enacting a Santa Monica-style ordinance.”

      http://bit.ly/H84YkD

      I thinking something along those lines might work wonderfully in Asheville.

  5. jg

    Also, there was a recent article in the Citizen Times touting February home sales in Buncombe as being “up” from a year ago (good news!?)but the article failed to mention that a full 1/3 of those sales were foreclosures. So, if you have plenty of cash Asheville and Buncombe probably do look good.

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