For recently-elected Council members Brian Haynes, Julie Mayfield and Keith Young, 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30 marked the end of their first City Council planning retreat.
Veteran Council members Cecil Bothwell, Esther Manheimer and Gordon Smith wrapped up their seventh retreat, while Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler marked her third year participating in the exercise.
“It was great to do a from-the-ground-up, start-from-scratch process,” remarked Mayor Manheimer, who called the two-day session “very productive.” Smith commented that, while previous retreats had focused on updating a list of existing priorities, he found value in facilitator A. Tyler St. Clair’s clean-slate approach.
“I”m happy to see the consensus and unity that have emerged around priorities,” said Mayfield, adding that Council defined common ground on which to build a “good working relationship” over the coming years.
Having found agreement on a number of issues, Bothwell commented, Council can “argue about the other stuff.”
According to Smith, this planning process is the first to identify equity and diversity as a key focus area, with Council agreeing to look at the impact of all its decisions through the lens of racial equity. Young pointed out that, without continuous effort and review, racial equity “is not just autonomously there.”
Manheimer pushed to address the education achievement gap that exists between white and minority students by formalizing the city’s afterschool programming initiative administered by the Asheville City Schools Foundation. Council members agreed that new monuments or other forms of recognition of African American heritage should be developed out of a community-led process.
The future of the city’s Parks & Recreation department was discussed at some length, with Manheimer saying the city hopes to enter into partnerships with Buncombe County for the operation and maintenance of the Western North Carolina Nature Center and Recreation Park and Pool. Young said that cuts to Parks & Recreation programming during the recession have negatively affected the city’s under-served communities. “What we’re saying is, we already know a problem exists there [with Parks & Recreation],” Young commented.
Along with City Manager Gary Jackson, Executive Director of Planning & Multimodal Transportation Cathy Ball and Assistant City Manager Paul Fetherston, Council agreed that finding new sources of revenue will be critical to many if not all of Council’s priorities. Specific revenue-generating possibilities discussed include raising the city vehicle registration tax from $10 to $30, instating a food and beverage tax, raising parking fees, bond referendums and continuing to seek funding from the Tourism Development Authority to offset the burden of tourism on city infrastructure and services.
One area in which the need for new funding was seen as particularly acute: transportation, called “Moving People” in Council’s vision statement. Council discussed priorities including improving and expanding the ART public transit system, building sidewalks and implementing a bike share program.
Smith announced a new initiative, Buncombe Community Capital, which would leverage a portion of the city’s investment portfolio to invest in local small businesses through community development financial institutions including Self-Help Credit Union, Mountain BizWorks and The Support Center. Other Council members seemed to support the idea.
Council discussed the importance of engaging with a wide range of partners, from utility provider Duke Energy to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, from Buncombe County to the North Carolina General Assembly and from Mission Health to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. Not overlooked were the importance of partnerships with private companies, community groups, nonprofits and individuals.
The elected officials agreed to explore ways to use city-owned land to increase the supply of affordable housing and indicated support for a plan to redevelop a former Parks maintenance property on Hilliard Avenue as affordable housing.
Councilman Bothwell’s vision of an Asheville served by an “all-electric autonomous taxi fleet” had to give way to more widely-shared goals for energy and the environment, including implementation of the Clean Energy framework and continued carbon emission and solid waste reduction efforts.
Two hot topics under the category of land use and development were growing edible plants on city-owned property and future development of city-owned property on Haywood Street.
As the retreat came to a close on Saturday afternoon, St. Clair led Council through a discussion of the next steps in finalizing Council’s vision and action plans. After Council members provide input on edits and changes, city staff will create action plans around each of the 36 priorities that emerged from the process. Ball pointed out that, in some cases, plans that address certain priority areas already exist. A final document will come to the Feb. 23 meeting of Council for a vote.