The Asheville Downtown Association tried something different at the Wednesday, Oct. 14 Asheville City Council candidate forum.
Rather than bringing the candidates up on stage to answer questions drawn up by the ADA, the forum blended candidates into the audience. Rotating every 10 minutes around six tables in the Millroom, candidates had a chance to interact with and answer questions directly from the voters.
“This is the first time we’ve done it like this,” explained ADA Executive Director Meghan Rogers. “We wanted to give people a chance to ask the candidates themselves, rather than have other people do it for them.”
At each table sat a candidate and an ADA board member, who asked an initial question and helped guide discussion.
Questions that night ranged from parking to housing, cleanliness to chain retailers.
One voter asked candidate and Vice Mayor Marc Hunt how to deal with increased homelessness downtown. “This is a big deal downtown,” the downtown business owner said. “By 9, 10 o’ clock on Wall Street, we’ve got at least 5-10 people sleeping on stairwells,” and business owners end up having to clean up after them in the morning.
Hunt explained that, while the city is working on eliminating chronic homelessness downtown, it’s a bit harder to deal with the transient homeless individuals — and the transient population is growing dramatically.
Another voter asked candidate Lindsey Simerly: “How do you feel about investing in the South Slope today?”
Simerly responded that the South Slope “is this new part of downtown that we don’t know what to do with yet. It’s the only place [downtown] that we can still really design.”
A second person at that table said that the city hasn’t reserved any territory for parking, and that’s an ongoing problem in Asheville that should be addressed in planning. Simerly agreed, saying that parking and sidewalks are a big priority in that area — and admitted that, though her area of expertise is housing, she’s working on learning as much about infrastructure needs as she can.
Candidate Brian Haynes was asked what the city can do to promote local businesses in Asheville, and he responded that the city could incentivize local businesses and encourage building owners to stay local. Haynes, a former small business owner, also added that he had signed the Unchain Asheville petition against chain retailers downtown.
On a similar subject, candidate Julie Mayfield used the analogy of fracking, in part due to her experience with environmental organizations. “I think we can look at ways to indirectly” handle this situation, she said. A city might not be able to directly prohibit fracking, but it can install light and noise ordinances that inhibit that kind of business from entering city limits — or to manage that operation if it’s already there. “We need to indirectly preserve the local nature if we can’t do it directly.”
Across the room, candidate Rich Lee was answering the same question. “When big, national retailers buy out a row of local shops, they take out the walls between the stores.” But if those chain stores fail, he continued, local stores can’t afford to buy back (or can’t use) the larger space. Though the city can’t say, “No chain retailers,” they can say, “You can’t blow out your walls” or impose size requirements.
On a slightly different topic, candidate Keith Young answered that he’s “not opposed” to a corporate headquarters locating itself downtown, but the question is: What will that company “do for Asheville when they get here? That would determine my answer.”
Just before a rotation, Young spoke with voters about how the city is pushing out locals. For example, “say my family owned a house here for 40 years and then my parents passed away. Now that property tax is falling onto me. And now there’s mansions being built up around the neighborhood. My property tax is going to go up,” and many long-time Ashevilleans are being pushed from their homes.
Before he could speak further on the issue, though, the 10 minute timer went off. “This is going so much faster than I thought it would!” Young exclaimed, laughing with his group.
When asked about a park across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence, Lee said he disagrees with the way that question has been framed in the past.
The question is: “Does the city take public input and take the initiative” to really outline their goals for dividing the space up into development and park space? “Or does the city take bids on the property” and wait for a private entity decide the fate of the space?
The park was part of the downtown master plan, Lee explained. But when we “act like fighting spouses [over the issue], we’re not getting anything to go off of.”
Many candidates expressed a need for increased discussion between the city and the Tourism Development Authority, in specific regards to the percentage used from the hotel tax increases going to improving the city’s infrastructure. (Currently the TDA can award the city grants from that pool of tax revenue.)
On that topic, Lee said, “Only a piddly amount goes into grants to cover the impact tourism puts on the city. Sidewalks could be called a tourism product just the same as a zipline.” If people are being pushed out into the streets, it’s not attractive to visitors.
After the candidates had made their rounds at every table, the ADA called them up on stage for some parting words, which Xpress has transcribed below:
Brian Haynes: Hello again, everyone. My wife and I opened our store Almost Blue in downtown Asheville in 1992. No one could have predicted what would transpire in this city. What happened over the next 10 years was both magical and organic. Artists and musicians were drawn into the city for the affordable lofts on top of the resale spaces and unique small businesses opened throughout the city. By 1995, we had become a regional destination. Tourists were drawn to our downtown to enjoy the blend of unique shops, restaurants, nightlife and entertainment. We continued this locally fueled sustainable growth into the next decade, and by 2000, we were a full-blown destination city. Now let’s look at present day downtown: Corporate hotels are popping up all over town, another chain store is on the way. How can we preserve the very things that made us unique and brought the people here to begin with? We as a city need to step away from our current path of hyper development and return to the original model that served us so well. I’m proud to call myself a localist. My family shops in locally owned independent businesses. We buy locally sourced goods and foods. We know that keeping our dollars in the local economy supports everyone. I signed and support Rebecca Hecht’s Unchain Asheville initiative. We must continue to fight to keep the chains out of downtown and West Asheville. I recently attended the Venture Local fair, where I had the pleasure of hearing Stacy Mitchell speak. She quoted a study done by the Atlanta Federal Reserve, and it stated, that towns with a large percentage of locally owned independent businesses had higher incomes and reduced poverty. In my opinion, the buy local movement has done wonders to push us toward a sustainable way of living and making the economy of the future. Groups such as Asheville Grown Business Alliance should be applauded for raising awareness for this cause. If I’m elected to City Council, I will be an advocate for this cause. Thank you.
Marc Hunt: I looked forward and I’m very glad for this forum tonight. Of all the forums we do, there is a juxtaposition of people that are incredibly passionate here and hopeful and optimistic about what Asheville can be. That’s what brought you here tonight. And many of you at the same time work hard and labor right alongside myself and Gwen Wisler here and others involved in civic leadership to make the best of what we’ve got. And we’ve got a lot of great things going on. We’ve got a lot of positive drivers. A lot of us would call the problems we have in downtown Asheville good problems to have. But I’d like to just reflect a little bit on my experience here tonight at each table. I think in talking with each group we got to some of the real difficult challenges that City Council faces in sorting through problems — whether it’s how to manage chain stores or parking or improvements or how to clean better. It’s very difficult at budget time to balance apples and oranges and plums and grapefruits and so on. And it’s difficult to consider how to arrange for more revenue. The common thing we talk about is how can we partner better with the Tourism Development Authority to have them as more of a partner from a funding standpoint for our downtown challenges. But I hope each of you at your own tables has seen that I am deeply committed to doing hard work and examining trade-offs and working through these difficult challenges to get the best balanced outcome. We can’t do everything. We can’t fund every great idea. All of our master plans have long lists of hopes and priorities and they’re probably greatly overloaded. And our challenge as elected leaders is how do we balance among competing priorities. It’s very difficult. But I am optimistic about where we’re going. I love the vibrancy of downtown. The things that make Asheville special downtown have prevailed for decades. And I think our challenge together is to keep it special. We’ve got challenges related just to the popularity of what we’ve got here. So let’s work through all this together. Thank you so much.
Rich Lee: Hey everybody, I’m Rich Lee. Thank you for having me out here. This is one of the forums I looked forward to the most, and the format was just perfect. I hope you guys felt that too. I’m a father of two — a 4 year old and a five year old. We live in West Asheville just across the river from here. I’m a financial advisor with an office just about half a block here. I got my start in involvement with the city organizing my neighborhood around the impact of the New Belgium Brewing’s proposal to drive trucks up and down our road every 13 minutes day and night. And thanks to our organizational efforts, we were able to be successful on that. I lead an effort to reinstate traffic calming in the City of Asheville after an 8-year hiatus to take care of a really dangerous road in the neighborhood. A lot of things from expanding parks and greenways to just quality of life on the ground issues. I’ve been there. I didn’t start this three months ago. I’ve got a history going back and even beyond this. I’m running for City Council though because I believe the next few years is really a crucial test of our resolve and our ingenuity as a city. We’re going to have to accommodate tens of thousands of new people and literally billions of dollars of investment flooding into our area. And somehow still hold on to the things that we all value, which are our local entrepreneurs and artists, our economic mix — our mix of lifestyles and ages, our infrastructure, our quality of life and also our natural beauty. There will be disagreements among us and among whoever is involved in the city going forward. But they won’t be these all or nothing disagreements that these things are framed as during elections. There will be real differences about the city’s role in taking the initiative to shape our growth and to provide a framework for the city to grow in. We don’t need to be Hong Kong or Northern Atlanta. And of course there will always be the question about how to pay for it with a budget that’s always under threat from new legislation. We talked at the tables about ways to access funding from the TDA, from other sources, and we talked about the process that these things work through. It’s a grinding, grueling process that I’ve been through a number of times with parks. Believe me when I say that I know what it takes to get a parcel of land into a good public use. It’s a really thankless job that really everybody who attempts to take it on should be commended. I’m a financial adviser, I’ve been through this before and I’ll appreciate your vote. Thank you.
Julie Mayfield: Good evening. My name’s Julie Mayfield. Thank you so much for the format of this forum; it’s great. My husband and I moved to Asheville on purpose because we wanted to live in a place that had the vibrancy and the eclectic nature and art and beauty that Asheville has. In the 7 ½ years that we’ve lived here, I’ve fallen in love with this town in a way that I’m not sure I could have imagined. And I’m running because I want to help protect and preserve and enhance the reasons that I moved here. And that is really all about downtown. Before I lived here, downtown was my experience of Asheville. And so I understand how special it is. It is in fact the jewel of Asheville and we have to work hard to protect it. It is threatened by the growth that Asheville is experiencing. I think that is very clear from the conversation tonight. And there’s passion all up and down all sides of these issues. What I can commit to you, is that I will work to protect it to maintain the local nature of it. To keep it clean. To keep it safe. And to continue investing in it to make it the place that we all fell in love with. I think a lot of us up here are not that different on most of the positions. I think really you have an embarrassment of riches in terms of candidates who are committed to taking care of downtown. So I think that the question is for you to ask yourself how to differentiate us from each other. I will mention that what I think I bring to this table is 25 years as a public interest attorney working both inside and outside of government on issues that are facing Asheville today — issues of land use, of growth, of environmental protection, transportation, inclusive decision making. That’s where I spent my career. A hallmark of my career has also been building partnerships with people across the aisle to get things done. And we know that there are very strongly held opinions in Asheville. We have to have people who can work all sides of an issue and maintain and build those relationships to take us forward. And I appreciate the support that you have extended to me so far in this process and would ask for your continued faith in my ability to lead Asheville forward. Thank you.
Lindsey Simerly: Thanks everybody who came out tonight. This was a ton of fun. I was really nervous going into this, having these smaller group conversations. And I learned a lot and I laughed a lot. And I felt like we all kind of went on a lot of individual little speed-dates, and now is the end of the night where everybody asks you to pick them. I feel like this is very, very similar to speed dating. [laughter]. And I enjoyed it a lot. One thing that is very clear tonight: Most people are not single issue voters. Most people aren’t out because of one thing or another, one park or another, one parking lot or another. Most people are here because they love the city of Asheville and want to help shape its future. They want to help shape how we grow and how we come together. And one thing that comes across at every forum we go to is the amount of extraordinary compassion and commitment that Asheville’s residents have. We’re a city that’s struggling so much about it’s hotel growth. And for a long time I was really wrestling with: What is it that makes everyone have this visceral reaction whenever we’re talking about hotels? And so much of that I’ve learned is that we care about these people who work in hotels. It’s not what the building looks like — sure, that’s a part of it. But Asheville’s a city that values all of it’s residents. Whether you’re a doctor or a member of City Council or you’re a janitor at a hotel. We want what’s best for our city and what’s best for our community. Downtown really shows what our city’s values are. Downtown tells the story of what Asheville is. Not just to our residents but to the people that come here. So our job as City Council, our job as downtown residents, our job as downtown business owners is to help shape that city — help shape how we grow and the message that we send to each other. To make sure we stay the funky, eclectic downtown that’s also welcoming people that can’t necessarily go out and spend $40 for dinner. I thank you all for coming here and for being here and continuing to shape the Asheville that we are as we move forward. I hope that you’ll give me a shot. I am not your average politician: I have a full sleeve tattoo of Asheville running down one arm. I have been poor in this city, and I don’t have a college degree. But I’ve worked very hard every single day to learn more about policy and be a good listener. It’s why I volunteered on the campaigns of other people. And it’s why I chaired our city’s affordable housing committee since 2011. It’s because I want to make this city a better place, and I want to do it with each and every one of you. Thank you so much.
Keith Young: Whoever came up with the format for tonight’s conversation, I’d like to applaud you. Because this was definitely one of the best events I’ve been to. I’m running for City Council to help shape the vision of this city’s growth moving forward. Looking out, how many of you have moved here in the last 25-30 years? What that shows me is that something brought you here to Asheville. And now you are here in this room as trustees of our city. As folks who are inclined to ask the questions, whether it be cleanliness of the downtown area, whether it be what hoteliers do, whether it be preserving open space, chain stores coming into downtown. These are issues that resonate with you, and you see your quality of life possibly shifting at some point in time — otherwise you wouldn’t be here. You are very inclined to see what’s happening to our city. Moving forward, I think it’s important that you choose candidates that share the same heart and passion that you do with your city. Who aligns closely with you? Who do you believe will listen to what you say and will protect your quality of life — the way that you saw Asheville when you first moved here and the way you want to see Asheville grow for those next 20-30 years, if you have kids, if you have grandkids. I just hope that you consider me on Nov. 3 for at least one of your votes to protect that quality of life and the issues that mean the most to you for your family and your future. Thank you.