With two newly elected members and an evolving political landscape, Asheville City Council’s annual retreat at The Collider Feb. 15-16 reflected a shifting mindset about what issues the city should tackle in the coming years.
The stated purpose of the retreat was: “To enhance the ability of the Asheville City Council to work together and make effective policy decisions through team building, a review and renewal of its vision and three-year priorities, and a discussion of governance roles.”
Before diving into discussion of the city’s goals, facilitator Tyler St. Clair asked Council members to share their observations on how the city has changed since 2008.
Mayor Esther Manheimer pointed to Asheville’s increased development, growth and tourism as big changes. “There’s been a lot of discussion about tourism and its effect on our economy — whether we hate it or we really hate it,” she said to laughter from those in the room. “And so it’s just a completely different climate in less than 10 years.”
Council member Julie Mayfield said one trend she sees is the city being “under siege” by the state legislature. “I think it makes us a little more cautious than we might be otherwise,” she said. “Asheville is an affirmatively progressive town, but because of the fact that we have a target on our back, we haven’t passed resolutions or challenged things that we might challenge otherwise, and that’s frustrating for a lot of people.”
Manheimer added that she believes national events have influenced the narrative in Asheville over the past decade. “The other thing that’s completely changed is we weren’t talking about police shootings in 2008, we weren’t talking about Confederate monuments, we weren’t talking about equity. We weren’t having social justice conversations like we are today,” she said.
Civic engagement among community members of Asheville increased in response to the Great Recession, said Council member Keith Young. “I think people were hurt so dearly, financially and socioeconomically, that people became more attuned to what local government can and can’t do for them, and even if they didn’t know, they wanted to be involved,” he said.
New Council member Sheneika Smith said another factor is that the composition of the city’s neighborhoods has fundamentally changed. “I think around the time of the recession, a lot of people lost their homes, and then they began to pick back up, and that meant the identity of neighborhoods began to change,” she said. “So I think along with what was going on statewide and nationally, in Asheville the activism ramped up because it was an act of self-preservation and trying to save the Asheville that a lot of people knew and that attracted people here.”
At its retreat in January 2016, City Council created Vision 2036, which laid out the Asheville that Council members would like to see within 20 years. The document is intended to be used as a guide when developing new policies and priorities.
At the retreat, Council members took a hard look at the vision statement and discussed what they think should remain in the document and what needs to change. They assembled in two breakout groups and created lengthy lists of suggestions for shaping the vision.
Mayfield presented the list of things that are working in Asheville on behalf of her breakout group, which also included Manheimer, Smith and newly elected Council member Vijay Kapoor. She highlighted as positives the city’s finances, greenway projects, transportation, energy and affordable housing. “We definitely have an engaged community … we are paying a living wage, we are continuing to set that model, our boards and commissions are getting stronger — we’re getting more applicants and more diverse applicants, and we’re doing a better job of training them,” she added.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler presented the list of items from the vision statement that are working in Asheville for her group, which included Young, Council member Brian Haynes and City Manager Gary Jackson. Among them: making community engagement a standard operating procedure; focusing on energy and the environment; efforts related to equity and diversity; and the city’s commitment to open data and the evolving use of technology. The group also wanted to “keep Asheville as welcoming for guests and for people who move here and continue to make it easy for people to get involved and get invested in the city,” Wisler said.
Next, Council members talked about what they’d like to change about Vision 2036 — and about Asheville in general. The first group had a lot to say on the topic of workforce development, advocating for internship programs and job programs for individuals left out of Asheville’s job market. Kapoor summarized the group’s discussion: “We talked a little bit about, well, what do we do versus what the private industry does, questions about trying to fit people with jobs — what’s the disconnect between, there’s a lot of job openings out there and there’s people saying, ‘I can’t find good jobs that pay good wages.’”
The first group said the city should continue its efforts to expand affordable housing and look into anti-displacement measures. It also brought up food insecurity, equity initiatives, land planning, police turnover, improving Parks & Recreation and working on zoning and development rules with the county.
The second group also presented a long list of issues on which members would like to see action in the city, including: supporting workforce development and diversity; recruiting more local talent for the police force; retaining youths so they don’t move out of Asheville; diversifying the economy; strengthening the relationship with the county; and developing an action plan around environmental initiatives.
Wisler said the group had an idea about improving the development process. “We were focusing on engaging the neighborhoods more, getting more neighborhoods to actually proactively plan versus just being anti-something,” she said. “Getting ‘Plan on a Page’ for all neighborhoods and make the neighborhood plans be the first thing that a developer goes to, or anyone who’s thinking about making a change in a neighborhood, that we really rely on that to be the guidance.”
Council made a few small revisions to the Vision 2036 document based on the discussions about what to keep and what to change, but one more substantial addition did not gain consensus of Council. Wisler suggested adding two sentences, which, after incorporating suggestions from other Council members, read: “Downtown is the financial, cultural, social, governmental and economic center of Western North Carolina. Asheville has successfully preserved other historic commercial areas scattered across the city.”
Some members of Council didn’t feel comfortable focusing on just downtown Asheville. “I want to not single out downtown as the only place that we’re trying to preserve or be any type of commercial power,” Smith said. “It seems like all across the city, we want it to be thriving.”
Young said calling out downtown could leave residents and business owners in other neighborhoods feeling overlooked. “People might distinguish that as ‘What about me?’” he said. He also worried that future City Councils might read this in the Vision 2036 statement and, not being privy to this conversation, misconstrue it as a directive to focus civic efforts on downtown to the exclusion of other areas of the city.
Ultimately, the language about downtown Asheville being the center of WNC was not added to the vision statement.
The second day of the annual retreat was given over almost entirely to revising the city’s 36 three-year priorities, originally developed two years ago. Council took them one by one, updating the status of each priority and deciding whether to retain it as a priority, mark it as complete or demote it as not a key priority.
Council identified several priorities that need more attention, such as installing a monument to African-American heritage, developing a plan for city-owned property at 68 Haywood St., and implementing strategies to get more diversity on city boards and commissions.
Members agreed they wanted to completely revise the wording of a priority relating to the city’s Parks & Recreation Department. The new version states: “Expand the role of Parks & Recreation in fostering racial equity and closing the achievement gap through its programming, facilities, staffing, operations and partnerships.”
Jackson explained that Parks & Rec has been working to apply an equity lens to its programming, which will continue. Mayfield suggested that the city could make additional investment in the department’s programs that are free and open to everyone.
In November, Council accepted the new Food Policy Goals and Action Plan, which identifies long-term food policy focus areas and goals. At the retreat, Council talked about where to go from here. Mayfield said her understanding is the plan now moves into becoming operational, with a focus on education and growing more food, which further brings it into the city’s purview because of the element of planting and maintaining community gardens and orchards on city-owned property. “That work has sat largely with the Sustainability office and some in Parks & Rec … and like none with Public Works, which actually manages a fair amount of our land,” she said.
Kapoor wondered if growing food should really be the focus of the Food Action Plan. “I get the edibles, I get all that, but to me the more immediate, three-year problem is focusing on how do we get people fed in the city of Asheville?” he said. “If we had one dollar, I would rather see that spent on supporting the YMCA or something like that where we immediately meet the need of those folks as opposed to saying, spend a dollar creating an urban orchard.”
Council added the word “women” to its existing priority: “Research and recommend a portfolio of options for small business and women- and minority-owned business support.” It also clarified that the original intent of the goal was to address chain stores moving into downtown.
“There’s still the chain store piece around zoning and what are some other strategies,” Mayfield said. “We can’t just outright ban them, even if we wanted to, so what are some other strategies to help protect local businesses?” Haynes pointed out that the Downtown Commission has a working group dedicated to addressing this issue.
Multiple times throughout the retreat, City Council members brought up the desire for a better working relationship with Buncombe County government. It workshopped a priority pertaining to this issue to read: “Identify and expand opportunities for partnership with Buncombe County, to include energy, transportation, affordable housing, greenway extension, solid waste, parks and recreation, and other amenities. Additionally, identify, address and formalize cooperative agreements with the county to ensure they are balanced.”
Wisler explained the problem as it currently stands. “We have several items that city staff has identified where either our agreement with the county hasn’t been documented, it’s kind of fluid, or the agreement isn’t necessarily fair or equitable between us, and we have a bunch of items that we just need to sit down and hammer out, either document them or renegotiate them,” she said.
After revising the 36 existing priorities, Council recommended a few new ones. Hiring a new city manager topped Council’s to-dos since Jackson announced he plans to retire at the end of this year. Also making the list of new goals were:
- Develop a strategy based on the National League of Cities report to foster economic mobility in the city of Asheville.
- Identify reasons for and reduce police turnover and enhance minority and local recruitment.
- Develop and implement a strategy to further awareness of the vision and the successes that the city is experiencing.
- Integrate multiyear operational financial plan into budget process.
- Evaluate new and renewing external contracts for the opportunity to bring work in-house. Haynes suggested this goal in response to the fact that the city contracts out labor and can’t require contractors to pay a living wage, but it does pay a living wage to city employees.
The City Council retreat also gave members the opportunity to get to know each other better with the goal of enhancing their working relationships. To that end, the facilitator asked them to tell the group about influential people and events in their backgrounds that affected who they are now as leaders.
Kapoor shared that he feels some formative experiences for him growing up were moving around quite a bit and watching his father deal with job loss. He also told of an incident that occurred in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago while he was in college. Kapoor and a friend were walking at night when some young people parked in a car got out, ran up behind them and hit him over the back with a pipe. They made it to safety, but Kapoor still draws on that event during hard times.
“For the first couple of hours we were were freaked out, but then it’s like, ‘You know what, I got hit by a pipe but I didn’t go down,’” Kapoor said. “In sort of this odd way, whenever I’m faced with a challenge it’s like, ‘I got hit by a pipe but I didn’t go down.’ I sort of turned that experience into something that was a bit of a positive.”
Born in Chicago, Kapoor talked about the experience of being first-generation American. His dad came from India and his mom came from Poland, and he said that led to some confusion growing up in Asheville in the mid-’80s.
“My brother and I stuck out — we didn’t really look like a lot of folks here,” he said. “Oftentimes, my mom would be asked … people would be polite and come up to her and be like, ‘Oh your kids are so beautiful, where did you adopt them from?’ It kind of gave you an understanding that you’re a little bit different from everybody else.”
Wisler talked about moving to a new town in Ohio and starting public school when she was in the seventh grade. She said while all the other girls were sporting jeans and work shirts tied up around the waist, her mother insisted that Wisler and her sister wear skirts and dresses.
“So we spent like the first six months like in open warfare with our mother,” Wisler said. “Finally she not only succumbed to letting us wear pants, but we actually got to wear jeans. It was pretty traumatic from the standpoint of trying to figure out, ‘Oh great, I’m brand new and I look like a geek.’”
Wisler said she’s also been greatly affected by losing loved ones, which has pushed her to develop a goal-oriented mindset: “I don’t have that much time, or, they didn’t, therefore I may not,” she said. That drive led her to become a CPA and eventually chief executive officer of the Coleman Co.
Haynes, an Asheville native, named his parents’ divorce, holding odd jobs while in high school, joining the Navy at 19, landing a well-paying job at the post office and owning a music store in Asheville as events in his life that shaped him. He admitted to being an introvert and said he didn’t start to come out of his shell until he got married. He also addressed his entrance onto the public stage relatively late in life.
“I know I’m kind of unusual, being a 60-year-old man that came into politics three years ago with no real thoughts of ever doing it, but I was always a socially conscious person,” Haynes said. “I rarely feel comfortable doing this, but I really felt like both our city and our world are at a turning point that we really have important work to do, and if we don’t start doing it, it may soon be too late. That’s why I’m here.”
Smith, also born and raised in Asheville, reminisced about sharing a small room with her two sisters on South French Broad near Aston Park Tower before her family moved to Blanton Street, also in the city’s predominantly black Southside neighborhood. She was shaped by her father’s involvement in the church, which gave her a community, and her mother’s involvement with the Hillcrest Enrichment Program in the public housing community of the same name.
Smith said she came in contact with inspiring individuals as she began working at the Hillcrest program, such as John Hayes, Terry Bellamy and Tracey Greene-Washington. “[I] just really had exposure to different levels of hardship but also different black influencers and contributors to education, science, technology,” she said. “It really opened up my mind to the cultural influence in America that was underrecognized.”
Mayfield said while growing up in northwest Atlanta, her father demonstrated an important lesson about strength of conviction when he was a supporter of Andrew Young’s campaign for mayor. “I think we were pretty much the only Democrats in our neighborhood, and so it was not unusual for our political signs to end up on the ground, in the creek, in the woods. My dad would would walk out every morning to go get the paper and go find the sign and stick it back in the yard,” she said. “You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in and put the sign out there.”
Mayfield’s eyes were opened to a broader political reality when she traveled during college to India, Africa and Central America, where she saw countries “ravaged by civil war started by our government.” She said these experiences were formative in her understating of the power of government to do good — and also bad.
Religious faith and his family’s struggles with home ownership formed the foundations of Young’s worldview. He shared that his family once lived in the Klondyke Homes public housing in Asheville and next to the Mountainside public housing development. After a period of sacrifices, his parents, who both worked and were college educated, scraped together enough money to buy a home in the East End.
“I remember driving by the house while it was being built and my parents being so proud and me running around the yard,” Young said. “I remember the first night that we actually moved in. … I remember sleeping on a blanket on the floor with my parents. They worked hard to paint the house, put appliances in there, but they were proud it was theirs. That was a big moment for me.”
Young said his mom was a big proponent of education and faith, saying those are two things that nobody can ever take away from you. She also imparted advice: “You have to always be twice as good as your counterparts. And when she said ‘counterparts,’ I believe she meant white folks,” he said. “She would say that in your lifetime, you’re going to have to overachieve just to be considered average. Everything that you do is going to have to be above and beyond just to be considered average in someone else’s world. That always stuck with me.”
Manheimer shared that her multicultural, multinational influences started early in life, after she was “born in rural Denmark in a barn.” Her dad was teaching in an experimental college there, while working on his Ph.D. in philosophy, studying Kierkegaard, and her mom was engaged in fiber arts.
After moving to San Diego and then Santa Cruz in California, her family went to Olympia, Wash., where a young Manheimer was exposed to social justice activism in a way that felt casual. David Romtvedt, who later became poet laureate of Wyoming, worked with her father and stayed with the family during the week. “He played the accordion in our basement all the time,” Manheimer said. “He also would go out into Puget Sound on boats and protest nuclear submarines coming into the Puget Sound. This was just kind of part of my life, like this was just what you did, and this was fairly influential to me.”
Manheimer said when her family moved to Asheville, she was reluctant because she had preconceived notions about the South from watching movies. She was pleasantly surprised by the city, but she was dismayed to find a kind of segregation within Asheville High School, when her counselor put her in honors classes and gently guided her away from certain classes and toward others that would have more white students.
After attending college and traveling, Manheimer came back to Asheville, working for a year as volunteer coordinator for Meals on Wheels. “That was the first time I had exposure to all the public housing neighborhoods in Asheville,” she said. “Frankly, it was very eye-opening to me. I really did not understand until that year when I was 22 that we had two different worlds happening in this city.”