An interview with Asheville Downtown Development Specialist Dana Frankel

CONNECTING COMMUNITIES: Newly hired downtown Asheville development specialist Dana Frankel took time from her busy schedule to discuss her new position, efforts to make downtown a vibrant, attractive place for locals and visitors alike, and what she likes to do in her free time. Photo by Max Hunt

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.

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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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8 thoughts on “An interview with Asheville Downtown Development Specialist Dana Frankel

  1. Tothedogs

    Since Ms. Frankel lived in NYC for nearly a decade, surely she can see the improvements that need to be made for Asheville to become a truly vibrant downtown and not just herds of tourists crowding tiny sidewalks. NYC has been very ambitious in making its streets livable and pedestrian friendly, installing safe islands with cafe tables, plants and buffers from traffic. There has also been a concerted effort to make the city safe for bicyclists and pedestrians. The point is, cars don’t make a downtown dynamic, people do! We need to make Asheville’s downtown about people by slowing down traffic, diverting it off of streets like Biltmore, closing streets, installing clusters of places where people can relax and eat. This city has so much to improve, I find it hard to believe. One has to dodge traffic at every turn while navigating downtown, be it the zooming traffic on Biltmore, College or Patton. With so many congregating at the Peel, Wicked Weed, etc. why isn’t there another light on Biltmore? Why do bike lanes simply disappear? Why do we even allow cars on Wall Street? We need a complete re-thinking of downtown, not just little baby steps. We are no inundated with millions of tourists with essentially nowhere to go, and a city which has made locals feel unwelcome downtown. We’ve got a bunch of new hotels coming online, bringing even more people. Hopefully Frankel will be bold and aggressive like a true New Yorker, and make things happen fast.

    • bsummers

      I like the idea of closing some streets. But some, like Biltmore, are state roads, and NCDOT has final say over them. My understanding is that the city is seriously limited on what, if anything, they can change.

  2. I would have thought you would have learned by now that people with the word liaison sprinkled thru their job description don’t actually do anything. So, no, Frankel won’t be making things happen fast.

    • Malcolm Berger

      Your negativity does nothing to solve the problems so… if you not looking for solutions your a part of the problem. As well Ms. Frankel’s skills are beyond reproach,and your reply lacks clear objective viewpoints

  3. clocky

    While it brings a smile to my face to compare Asheville to a city of seven million (New York), it’s not a particularly useful comparison!

    • boatrocker

      How true clocky – Asheville has so many more NY hipsters, restaurants and clueless drivers per square foot than NYC, though NYC has cheaper rent, a living wage, better public transportation and better museums- boom!

      And no, whiners- I’m happy here just where I am- advocating for Asheville to get over itself and think about long term sustainability and weaning itself from the tourism/outta town developer teat. Like what you do when you think of the future of a city and your grandkids growing up here.

      And to the Rand-y Tea Partiers- Asheville’s real (self inflicted) problems started in 2010 with the GOP counter-revolution.
      Am I missing anyone for ‘Wah, move if you don’t like it’? ‘Cause every time I don’t like something I pack all my worldly belongings and flee.

      • Lulz

        Wrong. The problem has been oh close to 2 decades with the same names on council and now county. Smith, Bothwell, and Newman, And I’m still surprised that no one has launched a criminal investigation into Newman who has made mucho dinero while in office. But liberals lie……….

    • Tothedogs

      Considering that was her previous home for nearly a decade and that the city is comprised of many smaller neighborhoods, the comparison works for me. The same issues that make life better apply to both large and small cities.

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