Committee meeting is no picnic in the park

While members of the newly formed Pritchard Park Committee bandied about ways to make their board more diverse, many of the roughly 20 audience members who’d turned out at the Asheville Civic Center banquet hall for the committee’s May 4 meeting were more interested in getting down to the business of addressing the park’s problems.

Since its inception a few years ago, the city-owned downtown park has attracted homeless persons and vagrants, and surrounding city residents and business owners say that presence has cast a pall over the downtown core.

During the two-hour meeting, tempers began to rise in the audience as the committee deliberated for some 40 minutes over whether to bring on a new member. The currently 10-member body is appointed by City Council and tasked with making policy recommendations for Pritchard Park.

The group’s charge is to gather public input in addressing and correcting the various issues surrounding the park, including crime, aggressive panhandling, public urination, vagrancy, litter and a host of other issues that residents and business owners say is degrading downtown Asheville and impacting their lives and livelihoods.

But the Rev. Amy Cantrell, a homeless advocate who sits on the committee, said that while she was confident that the current board was sufficient, any additional members should represent a stakeholder group not currently on the board. “This table does not look like Asheville,” she said, noting that there was nobody on the all-white board to represent blacks, the elderly, people with disabilities or others who enjoy the park.

Eventually, the group decided in a split vote to keep the membership at 10 persons and seek out special-interest focus groups in the discussion of the park’s future. And, if Council adopts a resolution to add an 11th member, the group decided to lobby the Council to consider someone from one of those un-represented groups.

Afterwards, Paula Dawkins, who owns a store near the park, said she considered herself compassionate and liberal-minded. But, she added, she’s fearful for her 11-year-old daughter and her employees—one of which had a knife pulled on her.

A portion of park denizens “are wreaking havoc,” she said. “We can’t keep going on like this. We are accosted daily. I’m asking you to recognize the plight of those of us who are faced with this daily.”

Dawkins wasn’t alone, as several others also recounted tales of woe. However, there were a few who told the committee that the crusade to control the park must not turn into a witch-hunt.

One audience member, a local pastor, warned against profiling all homeless people there as bad. Another woman, Donna Wilson, whose family spends considerable time in the park, said she and her family were not homeless and pose no threat, but nonetheless have been treated poorly by surrounding merchants.

“We’re not homeless people, and not all homeless are bad,” she said. “My husband was turned away from a store just because he came from the park … we had the money to pay, and all he was trying to do was buy something to drink for our son.”

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