Debra Campbell’s presence can shift the mood in a room. As Charlotte’s first female and African-American director of planning, she recalls, “I would go out to community meetings and see both older and younger people looking at me and giving me that nod of approval. Just the pride that I see in their faces, that’s so gratifying, so rewarding to me.”
Since beginning her new job as Asheville’s city manager in December — the first woman and person of color to permanently occupy the position — she has inspired similar nods of appreciation, as well as sky-high expectations. Xpress managed to snag a few minutes with Campbell on Feb. 18. We asked how she plans to tackle growth, public transit and dining out in Asheville. Her remarks have been edited for length and, in some instances, rearranged to group similar themes.
In one of your first remarks after being named city manager, you mentioned that you always admired Asheville from afar. What qualities attracted you to Asheville?
The natural beauty, for one, but [also] the activism. I come from a background of community and neighborhood planning, and so activism and inspiring people to not just care about what’s happening in their own backyard but look at the total community, that was extremely appealing. I also was impressed with the diversity of thought and the ability for a community that has a 12 percent African-American population to elect two African-American officials to the City Council. I thought this was a community that judges people based on their character, what they can bring and the impact that they can have. Lastly, it’s closer to my hometown. I’m originally from Chattanooga, Tenn., so I get closer to my family by being here.
You mentioned some of the qualities that drew you to Asheville, but have you noticed anything that the city may be lacking that you hope to address during your time as city manager?
We are lacking in basic infrastructure — sidewalks, curbs, gutters. Certainly we have got to address the issues of disparity that exist in this community between blacks and whites, particularly the achievement gap in Asheville City Schools. The affordable housing issue is — a lot of communities would say, “We’re at a crisis,” but Asheville really is at a crisis point, particularly with a service-based economy. We need to improve, enhance and increase public transportation, and we’re working on that.
It’s going to be a communitywide effort: The city cannot address all of these issues alone. So there is a role for the private sector in every one of those issues that I raised.
What communities have you not heard enough from yet?
I haven’t met a lot with the business community. My experiences in Charlotte were mostly with the business community, and here it’s actually the exact opposite. I’m definitely going to be very intentional about reaching out to that sector of our community, because they have an important to role to play [to] address some of the social disparity that exists here.
How do you balance so many different projects and departments?
I am providing leadership; I’m providing direction. A lot of the responsibility lies with elected officials and with the community. My job is making sure that I connect those dots, particularly from a city services-delivery perspective.
I have a tremendous amount of responsibility, but I don’t think I’m in charge of anything. I think sometimes people say, “your city” or “your city staff,” and it’s really “our.” As long as I operate from that perspective, I will stay humble, I will stay focused and I will stay passionate about working with others and making a difference.
Mayor Manheimer noted that, during the interview process for this job, you asked, “Why do people say this city is so hard to govern?” Knowing what you know now, how would you answer your own question?
Asheville has a reputation of the politics overriding even good decision-making sometimes. Since being here, I see the complexity of Asheville. I believe that it is complex in terms of how elected officials manage the community and the numerous perspectives; sometimes it’s very difficult for elected officials to prioritize and say, “We’re gonna go left and not right.” Either way they go, someone is not going to like the decision. Now that I am in the community, working with elected officials, I think my job is to help them sift through some of those complexities and do what’s in the best interest of the community.
Given all of the challenges, what departments are your top areas of focus in the first year on the job?
The Asheville Police Department definitely rises to the top. Sustainability, because I believe that department is underserved. This community is built on its natural beauty, and there are a lot of environmentalists that are advocating for — rightfully so — environmental stewardship. For us to do it, we’re going to need more resources. Again, transit is very much lacking. I don’t know if we have the resources to do what this community needs us to do.
You have alluded to there being a separation between the rest of city government and the police department …
There definitely has been in the past.
How do you plan to address that disconnect?
We’re in the process of hiring a chief of police right now. I want this person to reflect what we have heard in terms of attributes and characteristics that are needed as part of the job profile. That person will report directly to me; community safety, including the fire chief, will be under my direct supervision. I want the officers to feel as though they are a part of an organization, that if they fail, we all fail, that this organization is listening to them — and quite frankly, that their role will change.
Success will not be judged by how many tickets they wrote, but by how many crimes did they prevent How did they bridge the gap between themselves, their reputation and the community so that the community thinks more positively of them? That’s going to be the measure of success: that they connect with the community, that people of color don’t look at just their uniforms and immediately are intimidated. I just want to work with the department to assure them that they can do their job, but their job will be defined in a very different way going forward.
The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority is reviewing its policies for awarding grants from hotel occupancy tax revenues. In light of growing concern about the impact of tourism on city services, how will you advocate for the city’s interests with the TDA?
Although we have been extremely successful in creating a very prominent space for tourists, I don’t think that we have done as good of a job at creating space for locals. There is a sense of competition. And there’s also a feeling a loss, that the people who actually live here have lost their space to tourists.
I can assure you that African-Americans very rarely come downtown. What would they come downtown to experience? They used to come downtown to experience festivals and other things that met their needs, that reached out to them to encourage them to come to this space. We’ve got to do more of those kinds of programming, and we have to be very intentional about sharing this space with the broader community. Going forward, we need to think about how do we create opportunities for our locals to feel as though this is still their home.
Last October, City Council adopted a resolution with the goal of powering city operations with 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2030, which is really ambitious …
Tell me about it! Especially looking at it from a city services perspective!
What are the first steps to get things moving, and when do you think we’ll start seeing some pieces of this being implemented?
We have had a consultant that’s come in to help with some discussions. But when you have a choice of adding solar panels to a fire department and you’ve got an affordable housing issue and a transportation issue, we’re managing through and having discussions about those issues and assessing economic impact right now. This plan that is being developed will help us address realistically what can we accomplish within a certain time frame. We’re going to take one step at a time, but it is definitely something that we know is important to the community — it’s important to our organization.
What are you looking forward to the most during your first year?
Probably No. 1: connecting with the community. I want the community to know who I am, what my values are. But more importantly, I want to understand what their values are, what their concerns are, what are the key issues we need to address. I would love to show some progress, particularly related to a strategy around affordable housing and improving transit services. There is a goal of implementing recommendations in the [Transit Master Plan] for the first year. I would love to be able to accomplish that, but I don’t know if we will be able to, based on cost and competing interests.
Have you found a favorite restaurant?
Not yet, but I’ll tell you I had an amazing meal at Biscuit Head, the new one that’s open on Hendersonville Road. I should not have gone there, because it’s so close that I would be tempted to do that every weekend. I think it’s going to be a hard choice considering there’s just so many good places to dine out, upscale or low-scale or everything in between. I’m excited about it.
What do you like to do when you’re not managing the city?
I am an avid exerciser. I like to work out. I don’t have kids. I’m not married but I follow my great-nephew in track and field. Next weekend we will be in Nashville; in two more weeks, we might be in New York if he does well at the state. I am a voracious consumer of Christian hip-hop and I listen to books on Audible. I‘m trying to finish up on Michelle Obama’s book — it is long!
Is there anything else you would like the city to know?
I want the city to know that I have never felt so welcome. I mean, genuinely welcome. You asked a question earlier about the heightened expectations, and everybody has said to me, ‘I’m praying for you,’ or ‘If you need any help, call on me. We wish you so much success and luck.’ I guess that’s helped me a lot to not be intimidated or fearful because I feel like people got my back. I feel very comfortable here, and it didn’t take long for me to feel at home. This is home now.