When Kit Cramer arrived at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce as president and CEO in 2010, Asheville’s downtown was the subject of much complaining about panhandling, trash and graffiti.
The effort to address those issues embroiled the city in a fierce debate over a business improvement district, or BID, which is a designated area where businesses and residential properties pay an additional tax for more services, typically related to beautification and public safety.
Fourteen years later, Asheville’s downtown is the subject of much complaining about panhandling, trash and graffiti. And the community is once again considering a BID. Now Cramer, members of the chamber and several stakeholders from the business community such as the advocacy group Asheville Downtown Association are leading the charge.
An Asheville BID proposal continues to be controversial. In 2009, Asheville City Council included a BID in the city’s Downtown Master Plan; in 2012, City Council passed plans for a BID, but disagreement over an appropriate tax rate scuttled the plans; and by 2014, the city declared the project “dormant.”
So the question for the chamber in 2024 is whether the political climate has changed enough to lead to a different outcome. Have the COVID-19 pandemic, the housing crisis, calls for police accountability and the foothold prescription opioids, fentanyl, meth and xylazine have on the community changed the appetite for a BID?
Cramer thinks yes. Progressive Urban Management Associates, a consulting firm the chamber hired to evaluate the odds, conducted a feasibility study from January through June 2023. It has collated feedback from several focus groups and a survey of property owners and business owners, employees and residents, which drew 337 responses.
“What we’re hearing from the feedback and the survey results was ‘Boy, do we need this,’” Cramer tells Xpress.
Draft management plan coming
The feasibility study explored three potential areas for a BID — downtown, the Haywood Road corridor in West Asheville and the River Arts District — to reflect the breadth of concerns of chamber members, according to Zach Wallace, the chamber’s vice president of public policy leadership.
While the chamber declined to provide specifics, Wallace said downtown businesses showed the most support for paying more for a higher level of government services. The Business Improvement District Steering Committee saw the draft management plan the week of Jan. 15, and it will be presented in public meetings to other stakeholders the first week in February. Discussions are underway on how best to present the plan to the public, Cramer says. A town hall-style meeting over Zoom has been one suggestion.
It’s unclear, even in the draft management plan, how a BID board would be chosen, Cramer says. (Asheville’s 2012 proposed BID board was criticized for initially allocating seats based on property ownership, with larger property owners receiving more seats. Seat allocation later changed.) The draft will propose the coverage area, a tentative budget, which will determine the tax rate increase, and expected services. The rate will be the same for residents and businesses, says Wallace.
Some services would take precedence over others. “People started talking immediately about holiday lighting,” Cramer continues. “And I said, ‘Guys, holiday lighting is great. But we’ve got bigger problems. And we need to stay focused on those common problems, which right now are around public safety and cleanliness.’”
The question some business owners may ask, however, is why the city isn’t already providing adequate sanitation and public safety services. “That’s the sticking point,” Cramer says. “I’ve said it before, as have many businesspeople — they want the funding that is produced through the business improvement district to supplement – not supplant – the existing tax dollars.”
Why a BID was pursued
The chamber reignited the exploration of a BID in response to public safety concerns, Cramer tells Xpress.
“We saw an explosion in the number of people on the streets as a result of [COVID],” she says. “And that is not to conflate homelessness with crime, but it creates an environment where crime is easy to develop. I mean, there are people who are preying upon people who are homeless.”
The Asheville Police Department closed its Haywood Street substation in 2020, and the following year the department announced it would no longer respond to certain types of crimes, such as trespassing where the property owner doesn’t want to press charges.
Cramer says she believes APD “[not having] a downtown presence … was a mistake from the very beginning and [I] registered my thoughts around that, as did others.” She shared those thoughts with former APD Chief David Zack, City Manager Debra Campbell and elected officials.
In recent years, chamber members reported to the chamber “more than ever before” that their workers are feeling less safe, Cramer says. “I was hearing from businesses so consistently it was not funny.” The chamber decided to publicly weigh in, she continues, because of serious concerns about “the viability of very small businesses” that have been impacted by concerns about public safety downtown.
In March, the chamber and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Agency hosted a listening session for elected officials and city employees on this very topic. The chamber had “been working behind the scenes for months to address these issues,” she explains. But she says the listening session got the attention of city staff and elected officials more effectively.
“We had been talking for a long time from the perspective of employers and business owners — what really made an impact was when workers themselves shared their stories because the emotions were visceral,” Cramer says. The organizers “were very deliberate in asking people like Katie [Button, co-owner of the restaurant Curaté] to bring their employees. … I think that made the difference.”
But holding that listening session was something of a gamble for the chamber because media coverage of the event did shine a light on violence. “I don’t want to diminish the image of this city, ever,” Cramer says. “I am a No. 1 cheerleader because we want to grow jobs and opportunities for existing businesses and startups.” So she and others were “really hesitant to display our warts and our concerns — very hesitant,” she says. “That’s not normally what you hear out of a Chamber of Commerce.”
Cramer is pleased with the downtown safety initiative that the city launched in May, which addressed poor lighting, litter removal and an increase in the presence of law enforcement downtown. (After Cramer spoke with Xpress, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved a $56,000 funding request from the Sheriff’s Office. The money will provide additional downtown patrols on weekend nights over the next 26 weeks.) “Putting additional visible resources downtown has made a difference,” Cramer says. “I know that I feel better, and I’m not getting the phone calls I was getting, which is great.”
The BID proposal is an effort to be “part of the solution,” she says. A BID “tightens the relationship amongst the players and provides for greater collaboration — which I think is absolutely part of the secret sauce, making everything work,” Cramer says.
Still, she’s adamant that addressing business owners’ issues with public safety downtown requires a variety of approaches. “That’s the only thing I fear about this whole process is everybody thinks there’s a silver bullet,” she says. “There’s not.”