Parking. Public-space management. Ensuring downtown stakeholders are heard and included in city plans and processes: These are just a few of the challenges Asheville native Dana Frankel, the city’s new downtown development specialist, has been working on since taking her position with the city in May.
Xpress reached out to Frankel to get her take on a changing Asheville, on issues from infrastructure to equity, and most important — what makes Asheville a special place to her. The following is an excerpt from our correspondence:
Xpress: You came back to Asheville after several years working in New York City. What was it like growing up here, and how has the city changed?
Dana Frankel: Growing up in Asheville was the best! I spent a lot of time playing in creeks, building forts and being outside. In high school, I was especially grateful for Asheville Music Zone, which had a lot of shows open to all ages. And I don’t think I missed a Bele Chere.
When you’re a kid, it’s hard to know any different, but it’s really when I left Asheville that I realized how special it was and how much it shaped me. Recognizing that phenomenon is what inspired me to study urban planning — I find the role of places fascinating in the way that they shape people’s day-to-day experiences and overall quality of life, from how it feels walking down a street, to how people connect with one another and find a sense of community.
It’s so wonderful to see so many restaurants, breweries and local businesses packed with people. We’ve always had a beautiful, historic, walkable downtown, but now it has more life than ever.
What duties and responsibilities does your position with Asheville city government entail?
A major part of the role is serving as a point of contact for downtown stakeholders and enhancing communication between [them] and the City to ensure that information is provided in a timely and accessible way. I also serve as the staff liaison for the Downtown Commission and facilitate monthly meetings with staff’s Downtown Issues Task Force.
A few projects I’m working on include stakeholder outreach to consider temporary vehicular [road] closures and programming for Wall Street; efforts to address downtown public-space management, safety and placemaking; the Haywood/Page visioning process; South Slope planning; and coordination of a recent public workshop on Aug. 17 to get feedback on a downtown circulator [shuttle service] as part of a parking study.
I still have a lot to get caught up on, but I’ve enjoyed a busy couple of months meeting people and working to build a thorough foundation of context on the issues, opportunities and challenges facing downtown.
Many locals say downtown is mostly geared toward tourists. How is the city working to reinforce a sense of ownership among local residents?
There are organized groups for those living downtown, including DARN [Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors] and the South Slope Neighborhood Association, which the city works with very closely. [Residents’] representation on city boards and commissions, nonprofit organizations and participation in downtown initiatives offer platforms for addressing the needs of downtown residents. Programming and events supported by the city can also be geared for locals living downtown and elsewhere. Family-friendly amenities like Splashville in Pack Square Park are a great draw for locals downtown.
On another side of this, improving multimodal-transportation access and parking downtown can benefit [all] Asheville residents. Aside from entertainment and food, downtown is where much of our city and county governments conduct business and engage with the local community on many levels. Access to social services and government functions is a major reason why our transit lines feed into downtown. It’s a hub for residents from all sides of town, and from all economic backgrounds.
Along those same lines, are there any concerted efforts or plans in the works to ensure that tourism isn’t the sole economic driver downtown?
There are efforts on several fronts to diversify economic drivers downtown and the city as a whole. The city’s Innovation Districts link to downtown, and were developed to promote hubs for jobs and public-private investment.
A recent success is the White Labs [a biotech yeast company] facility, which brings 65 new jobs to a formerly city-owned site that’s adjacent to the Central Business District. Initiatives supported by the city through the Chamber’s Economic Development Coalition and Venture Asheville are also helping grow the start-up and technology ecosystem downtown. Offhand, The Collider [a meeting space for science experts and business entrepreneurs to collaborate] and Hatch [a shared space for start-up businesses to collaborate and share ideas] are good indicators of this progress.
Asheville has experienced tensions lately regarding what some see as a lack of diversity downtown. How can we increase opportunities for minority citizens to feel included in downtown’s culture?
A component in the Downtown Master Plan says, “Enhance Downtown’s role as the larger community’s front porch.” I think this statement says a lot. The downtown experience should offer opportunities for people of all backgrounds to gather and interact. This can happen in well-designed public spaces, through programming, and with access to culture, entertainment and unique goods and services. [City] Council’s Strategic Vision prioritizes not only supporting minority businesses, but using a racial equity lens to achieve strategic goals across sectors.
Our Economic Development staff proactively identifies and offers support to minority- and women-owned businesses, and provides guidance to those vendors and service providers to bid on city projects. A support group was also formed to provide networking and promotional opportunities for Asheville’s small, minority and women-owned businesses.
Through my meetings and conversations, I am trying to get a handle on what brings people downtown, what might keep people away, how people are accessing the downtown and what we can be doing to support an environment that’s as inclusive and accessible as possible.
On a lighter note, what do you like to do in your free time?
While it may not technically be “free time,” I’m really enjoying my walks to work and throughout the day. I have also been checking out as many downtown events as possible – outdoor yoga on Saturdays, Downtown After 5, Shindig on the Green, LEAF and ending the work week with a little drum circle action.
I also enjoy getting out on my bike and riding down to the River Arts District or on Town Mountain. On weekends, I’m spending as much time as possible hiking, swimming in swimming holes and tubing the French Broad.
As someone who’s lived and worked in New York City, what do you feel makes Asheville and WNC special?
You know what’s funny? In New York, when I would tell people where I was from, about half the time, the response was, “Asheville!! That’s amazing! How lucky are you?!” and the other half of people just didn’t get it at all.
I originally thought I’d be in NYC for a year or two and then come back. That turned into more than nine, but I finally made it. To be honest, my New York experience felt full, and in a way, complete. For me right now, the best things in life are here – family, mountains and a job working in one of the most interesting and exciting downtowns there is. New York will always be there, but Asheville is my home.