When local hoteliers Pratik Bhakta and Monark Patel brought their proposed seven-story, 103-room hotel back to Asheville City Council after a nearly five-month delay, no key features of the Biltmore Avenue lodging establishment had changed. But the result of the hotel’s Council hearing on March 12 was quite different from that of last fall, when the project was withdrawn before a formal vote: In a 4-3 split, Council approved the construction on a now-vacant lot across from the former Matthews Ford dealership.
What had changed, said Mayor Esther Manheimer, was the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s commitment to long-term planning around the use of hotel occupancy taxes. On Feb. 27, the BCTDA approved a yearlong initiative that will include a look at the strategic funding of city capital projects through the Tourism Product Development Fund.
“That is the kind of change that I needed to see personally before I would move forward with considering another hotel,” Manheimer said. Reversing her previous lack of support for the project, she joined Council members Vijay Kapoor, Julie Mayfield and Sheneika Smith in the approval vote. Brian Haynes, Keith Young and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler voted against the hotel.
However, Manheimer didn’t touch on the parameters outlined by the BCTDA for its initiative as she explained her vote. The tourism board’s consultant, St. Louis-based PGAV, will not re-examine the criteria for awarding funding, which include “strength of brand alignment” and “ratio of room nights generated to funding requested.”
The process will also not consider changes to the state law that mandates 75 percent of room taxes, approximately $17 million per year, be spent on sales and marketing. The law also requires the remaining 25 percent of those taxes be devoted to projects that can boost overnight visitation. Those parameters preclude any consideration of funding to offset the impact of tourism on providing city services.
Both Kapoor and Mayfield stayed true to their positions from the October hearing, at which they said the Biltmore Avenue hotel made sense when considered as an individual project. Mayfield noted that the hotel’s height, which drew objections from several residents of the adjacent Oakhurst neighborhood, was consistent with future city plans for the area.
“If you look at our comprehensive plan, downtown is moving down Biltmore Avenue,” Mayfield explained. “That’s maybe a design preference, but that’s the urban corridor that’s going to be developing there.”
Smith, who did not speak on the project at its October hearing, commented that Asheville had been largely silent about previous development in the area. “I wonder: Where was the rally cry when the community behind this facility was all black family owners?” she asked. “Where was the community benefit agreement when people were being pushed out? How about their protection to have such a scenic view of Mount Pisgah?”
Although Smith said that her approval of the hotel was “not for that reason,” she did not further explain her vote during the meeting. She did not respond to an Xpress request for clarification on her rationale by press time.
Wisler, who also did not comment at the October meeting, said her no vote was an effort to protect downtown from new hotel construction, although she expressed openness to the conversion of existing building stock into lodging. With 1,430 hotel rooms within two miles of Mission Hospital, she added, the developers’ argument that the project was needed to add capacity for hospital visitors “doesn’t ring very true to me.”