Community groups discuss city advocacy

Asheville on Bikes candidate forum
GEARED UP TO ENGAGE: As part of its involvement with the political process, Asheville on Bikes hosted a City Council candidate forum this election cycle. Photo by Steve Barker, courtesy of Asheville on Bikes

At the national level, Washington lawmakers get a regular earful from lobbyists representing massive business concerns: Big Tech, Big Oil, Big Pharma. At the Asheville level, according to Council member Sandra Kilgore, one major source of influence is Big Bike.

“My concern is the relationship between the city of Asheville and Asheville on Bikes, who I feel is doing the driving as to where and how we do things,” Kilgore said during a Sept. 13 Council meeting. She argued that the group has an outsized say in how the city handles infrastructure changes such as downtown bike lanes and the Merrimon Avenue “road diet.”

AOB is undeniably active in local government — the group hosts forums and asks questions of municipal candidates every election cycle, and it asks members to contact Council about transportation-related projects. But the nonprofit is just one of many community organizations that seek to pull the levers of political power in Asheville. Xpress spoke to several of these groups to learn more about how they pursue their agendas at City Hall.

Pedals with mettle

When AOB first began organizing community rides in 2006, Mike Sule, the group’s executive director, says it was “as grassroots as it gets.” After finishing a 1,200-mile bike tour of Oregon that summer, Sule had challenged himself to “create some momentum to advance bicycle infrastructure” at home in Asheville.

Mike Sule
“SECRET SAUCE”: Asheville on Bikes Executive Director Mike Sule says his organization succeeds by learning about issues early, researching deeply and engaging broadly with both city leaders and the community. Photo by Steve Barker, courtesy of Asheville on Bikes

In 2008, tragedy compelled AOB to take up advocacy work. The death of Jeremy Johnson, a 19-year-old father of three who was struck and killed while cycling through the intersection of New Haw Creek Road and Tunnel Road, deeply affected Sule. Although he didn’t know Johnson, Sule was teaching at Evergreen Community Charter School at the time and biked the Haw Creek intersection daily.

“People were showing up at [AOB] events and having a good time. After Jeremy’s death, I felt like I had a responsibility to the community to invest some of this socializing, the sort of social capital, into the political system, with the goal of improving conditions for all people moving by a variety of modes,” explains Sule.

Over more than a decade of subsequent advocacy, Sule has developed what he calls a “secret sauce” for achieving results. To stay on top of issues before they reach a Council decision point, he pays close attention to area boards and commissions, such as the city’s Downtown Commission and Multimodal Transportation Commission. Once he identifies an opportunity, Sule and his team conduct research and gather facts before engaging with as many people throughout the city as they can.

In the case of the Merrimon Avenue project, that included talks with business owners, the N.C. Department of Transportation, city staff, the city manager’s office, City Council and Mayor Esther Manheimer. Sule also set up “back porch meetings” where residents in neighborhoods closest to the project could engage in “lively, robust” conversations.

Sule says AOB stressed how the road diet would benefit everyone, not just bicyclists, to help sway those who were initially undecided or against the conversion. From reducing collisions by more than 30% to increasing walkability, he explains, the project is intended to “maximize the functionality of Merrimon Avenue” and create a business corridor similar to Haywood Road in West Asheville.

Asked about Kilgore’s comments regarding AOB, Sule said his group succeeds by shifting public opinion and promoting win-win solutions. “If constituents and voters did not like the direction, if they did not approve of the things I am advocating for, they would not participate in the things that I am advocating for,” he says. “[AOB] exists, and it is successful, because there has been a historic unmet need for safer streets that work for all mobility types.”

Lines of communication

Advocacy work led by the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods looks similar, but on a larger scale. While AOB has about 1,000 members, CAN represents tens of thousands of residents from 19 neighborhoods throughout the city.

Members from each of the coalition’s constituent neighborhood groups bring issues to monthly CAN board meetings. When the issue is something that affects many neighborhoods, such as the way developers must notify residents about planned projects, the coalition’s executive committee has conversations with city planners to see if change is feasible.

If it is, CAN forms a small group of volunteers to work on the matter, usually three or four people who have experience reading ordinances, writing draft language and attending meetings with city staff. Rick Freeman, the coalition’s president, says that’s how the group worked to pass revisions to the city’s rules on noise in 2021.

“We actually wrote a draft of the noise ordinance and presented it to the city and then negotiated with them all the way through until it was approved,” Freeman explains. Such a process can take months, and sometimes years, but he says patience pays off.

“I would say more than half the time that we start that kind of work, we don’t need to engage the City Council,” Freeman says. “You can find good compromises and good paths that are both going to help the citizens in their neighborhoods but don’t put city staff in some kind of a tough spot or ask them to go beyond their budget or all the constraints that they have.”

For the times when CAN can’t reach a compromise by working directly with city staff, the group will escalate the issue to City Council via letter-writing campaigns, phone calls, emails and public comment during Council meetings. No matter the level on which it’s operating, Freeman says, CAN offers “reasoned input on complicated topics” with well-researched advocacy based in facts.

Maintaining relationships

The Asheville Downtown Association’s advocacy also begins with the concerns of its members. Meghan Rogers, ADA’s executive director, says the group regularly surveys its business owners and downtown residents to identify their biggest issues. And just as with CAN, the ADA’s first contacts after flagging a problem are generally city staff members.

That approach has proved successful for the ADA. After repeatedly hearing from members that downtown parking was a major headache, the organization helped advocate for an employee parking lot on Asheland Avenue and got its monthly parking pass costs reduced from $70 to $50. The ADA also pushed for looser restrictions on gravel lots that could be used for parking and, with the help of other community groups, reinstituted the first-hour-free parking policy in downtown garages.

For the West Asheville Business Association, inviting city staff to monthly board meetings and quarterly general membership meetings has allowed members to address issues as they arise. “We’re more about advocating for businesses in West Asheville than we are about marketing or networking,” says Krista Stearns, WABA board member.

One of WABA’s regular attendees, says Stearns, is Rachel Taylor, an economic development specialist for the city of Asheville. Recently, Taylor has helped facilitate conversations between WABA and the N.C. Department of Transportation concerning the repaving of Haywood Road. Business owners have been advocating for improved pedestrian walkability, safer crosswalks and wheelchair access. They’re also working to ensure businesses can continue to operate during the repaving process despite the temporary loss of parking spaces, increased traffic and road diversions.

Council member Kim Roney, also a West Asheville business owner, regularly attends WABA’s meetings, as do members of the Asheville Police Department. Regular communication with Taylor, Roney and the APD has helped WABA avoid elevating issues to City Council. With regular attendance, says Stearns, “We’re able to keep up with what’s going on at the city level and plug into things that are important.”

Out on a limb

For community members who don’t have established relationships with city staff or elected officials through existing organizations, making changes can be a challenge. Mary Ann Braine, together with an informal group of other West Asheville residents, has been trying to advocate on behalf of those affected by the Vermont Avenue Sidewalk Project since 2018.

Braine and others are worried that the project will damage the mature maple trees that line the street, in turn threatening their neighborhood’s character. In response, group members have attended public meetings, hosted meetings in their homes, held Zoom discussions with Asheville capital projects director Jade Dundas and Assistant City Manager Rachel Wood, and sent emails to Capital Projects staff copied to Council members and Mayor Manheimer.

None of those efforts have yielded the results Braine has hoped for. “We would love the city to stop moving forward and start talking to us,” she says.

While communication seemed to be open in the early stages of the project, Braine says that last fall, after a new project manager took over, things shifted. She believes a public survey on the project was designed to sway people into choosing a design option different from what the residents had originally favored. (City spokesperson Kim Miller says the survey “clearly described how many existing trees would be preserved, how many existing trees would be removed and how many new trees would be planted” under each option.)

Despite assessments made by the city’s arborist, the group is concerned existing trees will not survive the construction project. Members are continuing their work, even after being told by Dundas and Wood that project staff is no longer accepting public input; Miller says the city has “received overwhelming clear feedback from the community on the preferred design option and are now in the process of delivering on that preference.”

Sule, with Asheville on Bikes, offers the following advice for residents like Braine: “Seek small, incremental change and build upon each and every success. Bring new people in. Form partnerships with other organizations. Collaborate. Be prepared to make some concessions and engage your opposition civilly.”


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6 thoughts on “Community groups discuss city advocacy

  1. Pierce

    AOB caters to rich white people in spandex on 5k road bikes. He’s not helping the community, just securing his white privilege. Increasing density while shrinking roads only leads to cars idling more and taking longer to get to the destination. Sounds really good for the environment. AOBs favors bike lanes over sidewalks that more people use. Mike Sule should go away and take his roadies and white privilege with him.

    • Jt

      It has nothing whatsoever to do with race. His group does the work necessary to get EARLY buy in in the process, which most groups don’t do. Read the article again and pay attention to all the groundwork steps he’s taken. That’s where the rubber meets the road. Just showing up at council meetings to complain after all the work has been done accomplishes little. Engaged and savvy citizens will always have a bigger seat at the table than last minute outrage. I’ve been on the elected side of the table and understand how the sausage is made. Developers run the show in most places . Only sharp, hard-working citizens can counter them effectively.

      • SpareChange

        The essence of what you are saying about what makes a group effective is absolutely true, but it also ignores the bias built into how advocacy politics works. Political engagement and effective political organizing requires political resources, like money, people with time on their hands, organizing skills, knowledge, social and political connections, experience and savvy regarding how the system really works, etc. These kinds of things DO skew very much in favor of more affluent and educated groups, and do serve to reinforce existing inequities along socio-economic and ethnic-racial lines. Wise leaders who are able to get beyond responding to the squeakiest wheel, or the most organized voices, or largest donor, or the most influential endorsement, recognize that and factor it into their decision making. AOB can be commended on its effectiveness and hustle, but a look at its board also underscores the point I am making.

        • Robert

          I believe you both make good points. Locals who stand up for their neighborhoods and strive to protect quality of life and our natural resources deserve a lot of credit and respect around here–especially since the deck is so often stacked against them.

  2. SpareChange

    A couple of years ago, as Vijay Kapoor was preparing to leave Asheville and end his service on the City Council, I thought he did a good job of stating the case regarding the role of advocacy groups in Asheville:

    “One of the things that has surprised me is how much power advocacy groups have in the city versus the average resident and frankly, how little time you see council members doing what I would consider to be general constituent services, like, ‘I’ve got a problem with the sidewalk. I’ve got a problem with my road. I want park improvements to this particular park.’

    We’ve got really strong, passionate advocacy groups. And I think those folks have a disproportionate voice on the council.

    And I think our current structure by being elected all at large has a lot to do with it. This is part of the reason I thought if we moved to that district concept, that would actually focus people on some of the more day-to-day things that impact people’s lives in the city. Those interest groups, I cannot underestimate how much political power they have.”

  3. R.G.

    It should be noted that Sandra Kilgore takes donations from developers and realtors–many of whom have a bit too much self-serving and destructive influence around here.

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