Like many Asheville residents, Kelly Miller has bounced around a lot, changing both his hometown and his profession with a frequency that calls to mind the adage, “Not all who wander are lost.”
A former nightclub booking agent, record-store owner and (seriously) standup comic, Miller’s been in Asheville for nine years, working at the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention & Visitors Bureau (he’s executive director). And he’s now donning yet another hat, taking a seat alongside his fellow Asheville City Council members. (Miller was appointed Dec. 9 to serve out the remaining year of Holly Jones’ term after her election to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.)
“Life experience is it,” he maintains. “I think having a variety of life experiences is a real asset.”
Mountain Xpress: In a few days, you’ll be joining the other Council members at their annual retreat. Do you have anything you want to get onto the table?
Kelly Miller: Those two days will be probably the most important time spent thinking strategically in terms of the time that is ahead. Affordability, green, safe and sustainable—making sure these elements are infused in our dialogue and determine the level of service you and and I expect while keeping tax rates low. That’s the balancing act. It is going to be heavy lifting. Everybody needs to put aside maybe personal agendas and focus as a team.
Besides your work at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the CVB, you serve on the Downtown Master Plan Advisory Committee and the boards of the Asheville Art Museum and the Pack Square Conservancy. What do you do with your free time?
I run the Mountains-to-Sea Trail a couple of times a week. I grew up in one of the largest national forests in the country, in southeast Alaska, and you never get that out of your blood. I cook a lot. I love music; I love live music.
Do you play music?
I play a little guitar; I know three or four chords (I’m an old Dylan fan). I had a music shop for five years. When CDs first came, I opened up a shop: Budget Tapes and Records. I got the last franchise in their company in Juneau, Alaska. You name probably any band, I’ll tell you what label they’re on, who played on the album.
What other ventures and adventures have you gone off on?
When you move to Alaska, like Garrison Keillor talked about, within two weeks you’re on the school board, you’re running bake sales, you’re elected to the Rotary Club and all that. It’s a small town, so you become a renaissance person whether you want to or not. I worked for the state Legislature in Alaska. Right out of college, I opened up a nightclub, a smaller version of the Orange Peel, in Missoula, Mont. The Forum, it was called.
Is it true that you dabbled in comedy?
Did standup comedy; opened for some guys who used to be on Showtime and HBO. Some local bars in Juneau decided to do comedy, and I always wanted to try it, so I said, “Sure, I’ll put my name on the list.” A bunch of us got together and did it. There was all this creativity going around, and so we just went there and told bad jokes for a while until we figured out how to do it. I became the guy who’s not the headliner but right underneath those. That was ‘87, ‘88.
What made you want to do comedy?
I was 5 feet 2 inches at the beginning of my junior year in high school, and I hung out with a quick-witted bunch of guys. As the short guy, I had to fend for myself, and I wasn’t going to do it physically, so I became very quick-witted verbally. And my dad and mom are real cards.
It seems like comedy’s one of the hardest things to do in front of an audience. Has that put you into a good position for a lot of these later pursuits?
Absolutely. You learn to seek to understand before you are understood. But in comedy, as in being a public policymaker, you’ve got to understand what it is that people seek. And to be able to be empathetic and connect. Also, you’ve got to prep and prep and prep.
Why did you move to Atlanta?
Had a son [with his first wife] in Juneau who almost died—had to be medevaced to Seattle. There are only two anesthesiologists [in Juneau], so when your kid needs to go under, they get you out of there in a hurry. My wife at the time was from the Atlanta area, and we wanted to have another child, but we didn’t want another risk like that.
You said in your application that you’re not affiliated with a political party, but a lot of attention is given to the balance of political ideas and ideals around the Council table. How do you think you affect that balance?
People that know me and have seen me engaged in process would say that I bring a more balanced approach and can really bring two opposing points of view together. And that’s what I’ve been involved with most of my professional life. D’s and R’s don’t really mean so much anymore when coming up with solutions to our present problems.
Now that the selection process is over, would you support using it again in the event of another Council vacancy?
It’s within the Council’s power to do the process the way that they did it, and given the financial challenges nationally, I think that when you can save over $50,000 [by not holding a special election] and still give the citizens of Asheville an opportunity to compete for a slot on Council, I have no problem supporting that process.
Another applicant, former Buncombe County Board of Commissioners candidate Cecil Bothwell, has recently criticized your appointment. How do you respond to his assertion that Asheville needs to prepare for a “post-tourism” economy?
I think if you look at the hard numbers, tourism only represents a sixth or a seventh of the economy in Buncombe County. I think what we need is as strong legs to the economic table as we can possibly build, which includes advanced manufacturing, health care, tourism, education and the thousands of small businesses we have. Asheville is anything but primarily a tourism-driven economy.
How long do you think it will be before you have to start campaigning for the 2009 election?
I think what I’ve decided to do is to really work as diligently as I can with my colleagues on Council, and I guess in early summer I’ll make that decision. If it works and there’s an outpouring from the community that says, “Yeah, we want you to run,” I would look seriously at that. But I’m not going to make that decision yet. I haven’t even sat down at a meeting with Council yet.