In a joint meeting short on controversy, but long on mutual back-slapping, the Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners celebrated common projects, resources and initiatives.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer noted in her opening remarks on Tuesday, Aug. 18., that it wasn’t quite clear when the last joint meeting was held, but none have occurred in the more than five years she has served on City Council. Convening in the County Administration Building at 200 College St. in Asheville, all members of both bodies except Councilwoman Gwen Wisler were in attendance.
Commission Chair David Gantt reminded his colleagues of the elected officials’ shared constituency: “You have to remember that every single person who lives in the city pays the exact same tax as someone who lives outside the city, so we represent the same people, and we have a lot of the same interests.”
After posing for what Manheimer called “our family photo,” the officials heard presentations from city and county staff.
County Manager Wanda Greene and City Manager Gary Jackson kicked things off with collaborative economic development success stories including the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission’s booking of the Southern Conference basketball tournament and Asheville’s selection as New Belgium’s East Coast brewery location. Jackson noted that the city and the county are just as excited about retaining and supporting existing businesses in the community as they are about high profile economic development wins.
Some of the local government functions and services provided in partnership by the city and the county are public safety services and training, detention services, transportation services, community services, education, arts and culture and many more. Jackson apologized for any inadvertent omissions, saying that the shared programs and services are so numerous that it would be impossible to mention them all. The joint services, he said, must operate seamlessly behind the scenes, since citizens are more interested in the results of city and county cooperation than the specific responsibilities of each.
Assistant County Manager and Health and Human Services Director Mandy Stone took the floor to update officials on two new community service facilities currently under construction.
The Family Justice Center, located at 35 Woodfin St., in downtown Asheville, will offer a “one-stop” facility for meeting the needs of the victims of domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse and neglect.
Stone noted that 5,314 calls for service related to domestic violence have been received so far in 2015, a number she called “pretty staggering.” The community’s response to domestic violence costs an estimated $6.7 million per year.
The goal of the Family Justice Center is to provide a coordinated community response to domestic violence that improves outcomes for survivors and uses resources efficiently. Services to be offered at the new center, which will open in early 2016, include crisis intervention, service coordination, trauma counseling, forensic nursing and medical exams, child and adult protective services, criminal reports and investigations, evidence processing and therapy animals.
Repurposing the existing building at that location makes sense, said Stone, because the location is a secure facility which currently houses social work staff. The building is close to the courthouse, has a Meeting Garden for children and is already plumbed for medical exam rooms.
Another new community service facility under construction is the Behavioral Health Urgent Care center at 356 Biltmore Ave. Currently, law enforcement officers responding to a behavioral health emergency must drop off patients at the Mission Hospital Emergency Department, where patients may wait days for admission to a psychiatric treatment facility. The new center will provide a single point of entry and assessment for behavioral health patients, improving care and outcome while reducing costs. A 16-bed crisis stabilization/detox unit for adults will be located at 356 Biltmore Ave., while 16 additional crisis stabilization beds for children will be located at 283 Biltmore Ave. An on-site pharmacy will provide immediate access to psychotropic medications.
The center will begin providing 24/7/365 urgent care services at 356 Biltmore Ave. in January 2016.
Buncombe County Planning Director Jon Creighton updated officials on the progress of downtown capital construction projects. Two school construction projects, Isaac Dickson Elementary School and Asheville Middle School, are underway. “We had a bit of a rocky start at Dickson,” Creighton said, “We ran into a major landfill there. But other than that, I have to say both are going well.”
According to Creighton, the new Isaac Dickson building will be completed by Jan. 1, 2016, while the new construction at Asheville Middle will wrap up in June 2016. At that time, demolition of the existing middle school building will commence, with project completion scheduled for the end of next year.
Three major construction projects at the Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College campus will be completed by October 2015: the Allied Health and Workforce Development Building on Victoria Road, a multipurpose building with an auditorium and meeting space behind the existing Coman Student Center and a 650-car parking structure.
On Coxe Avenue in downtown Asheville, site work has begun for a new seven-story Health and Human Services building and 650-car parking structure. The new building will be adjacent to and contiguous with the existing Health and Human Services building at 40 Coxe Ave., and it is expected to open in February 2018. Creighton said that a storm sewer that ran diagonally across the property had to be excavated and relocated, but work on the caissons that will enclose the building foundation should begin within a week.
A new 12-lane indoor shooting range which will be used by city and county law enforcement officers is also under construction. It will be completed in May 2016, which the sheriff is “extra excited” about, said Creighton, earning a laugh from the audience.
Stephanie Monson-Dahl, Riverfront Redevelopment Office director, took the podium to report on Innovation Districts in the City of Asheville.
Innovation Districts, Monson-Dahl explained, are an economic development strategy that invests in and leverages community infrastructure in certain areas to create well-compensated jobs. These districts include Downtown Asheville, the River Arts District, the South Slope Extension area and, in the near future, North Charlotte Street from Chestnut Avenue to Edwin Place.
According to Barbara Whitehorn, chief financial officer for the city, the City of Asheville will invest $108 million over the next five years as part of its overall Capital Improvement Plan. Of that sum, $43 million will come from grants from outside agencies, including the federal government. Projects located within innovation districts can be financed with a form of debt that is less expensive than other forms of municipal financing. Thus, taxpayer dollars go further when invested in innovation districts.
In her concluding remarks, Manheimer said, “I appreciate all the opportunities to work together and how the county has stepped up to be a partner with the city to accomplish as much as we possibly can. I always say it’s nearly impossible for Asheville to accomplish anything unilaterally. We have to depend on partnerships, and we are lucky to have a county like Buncombe to work with.”
Gantt continued in a similar vein: “We want to see the city succeed and to be an economic engine for the whole mountain area. We’re glad to work with you. We want to be your partners.” Picking up on Manheimer’s family metaphor from the beginning of the meeting, Gantt said, “We feel like we’re cousins.”
Gantt joked that he wished the city and the county could have gotten together to share their office buildings. But, he said, “I think they built them in the ’30s.”
Of the city’s work in the River Arts District, Gantt enthused, “That work in the RAD is just phenomenal. I just appreciate you having the guts to put your money where your mouth is and to get in there and do it, and we’re looking forward to further opportunities.”
Responding to the note of harmony at the close of the one-hour meeting, Manheimer quipped, “Kumbaya. All join hands.”
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