Early on the frigid morning of Feb. 12, members of the Council of Independent Business Owners gathered in the Biltmore Square Mall food court to hear Buncombe County and city of Asheville elected officials summarize their respective financial situations and goals.
The setting seemed appropriate to a discussion of the economic downturn, as the mall has seen businesses leave, and many slots in the food court were shuttered.
Asheville City Council member Jan Davis said the city is facing a $5 million deficit, and he believes the problem could be spreading.
"Merrimon Avenue is blighted: It's shutting down," said Davis. "Patton Avenue west of the river is blighted; the blight is spreading to downtown. I've seen downtown revive," he added. "We don't want to go back to the other end of the scale, and it can happen."
Davis also called for cooperation with the county, taking issue with Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt's comment to the Asheville Citizen-Times that the city shouldn't look to the county as "a sugar daddy."
"Beyond the rhetoric and the 'sugar daddy' comments, we need trust and cooperation," stated Davis, adding that Mayor Terry Bellamy and Council members are "asking for partnerships — opportunities that benefit both our citizens. Our doors are open."
Davis also defended city spending on buses and greenways, which some CIBO members consider frivolous. Buses, he asserted, help workers get to their jobs, noting, "Without them, you'll have a whole other problem." And "When you can go down and see 5,000 people using the greenways on the weekend, that indicates something that our citizens support."
As for his controversial vote opposing the concept of same-sex domestic-partner benefits, Davis explained: "It was a process thing, not a morality issue: I didn't like how it got there. The city's doing an assessment of its health-care costs, and I think it would have been less divisive to bring it up then."
He also noted that while no one on Council wants to raise property taxes, it might have to be considered at some point. "I don't advocate tax increases right now, but the time may come when that's necessary to keep this a good place to live."
Davis' description of the city's budget situation stood in stark contrast to the picture painted by Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Bill Stanley, whose turn at the microphone came next. The county, he said, is "in pretty good shape. We don't have a deficit; we have a good fund balance."
Nonetheless, said Stanley, the slumping economy has triggered a drastic spike in social-services expenditures, and the demand for food stamps has tripled. He also voiced concern that the state may raid more county revenue sources to meet its own budgetary demands, predicting, "The state is hurt, and they're going to hurt us."
For those reasons, noted Stanley, he does not support "rules and regulations that limit people and businesses getting work," and while endorsing more city/county cooperation, he maintained that draining the county's fund balance is not the way to do it.
"Our sugar might just taste like licorice," he cautioned.
Last to address the gathered business people was Council member Gordon Smith, who elaborated on the theme of city/county cooperation and said he sees potential for Asheville becoming a "high-tech regional center."
"There are things we can do as a city to make ourselves more attractive, so that when businesses like Google are looking to site new projects, Asheville is an attractive place," said Smith. "If you look at the cities where these high-tech jobs are concentrated — San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis — these are places that are inclusive, diverse. They have multiple modes of transportation, and housing you can afford."
Specifically, Smith said he's been consulting with his City Council colleagues on how best to pursue obtaining one of Google's recently proposed superfast broadband networks, adding that it will take the cooperation of multiple local governments and groups like CIBO for the push to have a chance of success.
Smith also said the city plans to deal with its budget situation by cutting costs and raising fees, and that raising property taxes would be the last resort.
"We need to have exhausted every last possibility before we even look at that," he said. "Because that's something that hits everybody, and it hits people hard."