Bridge of sighs

Photo by Bill Rhodes
What’s in a name? The Smoky Park Bridge crosses the French Broad River just west of downtown Asheville The board requested that the North Carolina Board of Transportation rename it in honor of Capt. Jeff Bowen. photo by Bill Rhodes

If the Buncombe County commissioners get their way, one of Asheville's most-traveled landmarks may get a new name. During their Jan. 3 meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved asking the North Carolina Board of Transportation to dedicate the Smoky Park Bridge in honor of Capt. Jeff Bowen.

The bridge crosses the French Broad River just west of downtown Asheville, linking Interstates 26 and 240 and Patton Avenue. And though the final decision lies with the state body, a number of local groups supported the move, including the Asheville Fire Department and the Buncombe County Fire Fighters Association. Asheville City Council is scheduled to consider a similar resolution later this month.

Bowen, a 13-year Asheville Fire Department veteran, died July 28, 2011, while combating a fire on the top floor of Mission Health System’s building at 445 Biltmore Ave. He was the first Asheville firefighter to die in the line of duty since 1982. In the following days, investigators determined that the fatal blaze was arson; no arrests have yet been made in connection with the crime, which caused more than $20 million worth of damage. Bowen, 37, is survived by a wife and three children.

Noting that Bowen worked out of a fire station on Louisiana Avenue in the same part of town as the bridge, Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt said he thought the dedication would be a fitting honor.

"Capt. Bowen made the ultimate sacrifice for our community," Gantt observed. "Everything we learn about him is that he was just a top-notch man; he was a good family man and well-deserving."

No one spoke against the proposal during the meeting, but Gantt noted that he’d received a letter from Leicester resident Joyce Morgan urging him not to support renaming the bridge.

"We live in the 'Smoky' Mountains and see them every day and love them," she wrote. "I can understand the issue with Mr. Bowen and have sympathy for the widow and the Fire Department. Surely there is a better place to put in his memory. … So I beg you and City Council to please save the bridge as 'smoky.' This is part of our heritage."

Gantt responded via email, saying, "I understand your concerns and heritage issues but felt the resolution should go forward."

Vice Chair Bill Stanley was absent from the meeting due to illness, said Gantt.

Lighting fires

The commissioners also heard a report from Ben Teague, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County, who said his organization is working harder than ever to bring more jobs to the area.

"We're firing on all cylinders to make our projects happen," Teague declared, noting the coalition’s Asheville 5×5 campaign, which began last year with the goal of raising $3 million in public and private funds. The money will be used for marketing and support efforts for both new and existing businesses, with the goal of creating 5,000 jobs within five years. The group, he reported, is constantly marketing the area to local, national and international executives as an ideal place to expand and do business.

"We have a strong brand, and we're going to continue to push that.” In addition, said Teague, “We're going to seek the companies, with the resources we have, in very niche ways to promote our brand. … Our job is really lighting the fires of others to tell our story.”

The organization’s Dec. 29 Homecoming Job Fair at Biltmore Square Mall, he noted, brought together more than 80 employers and related resources looking to fill more than 1,000 positions. And while Teague conceded that the roughly 3,000 job seekers who lined up for the event constituted "a bad sign," he stressed the positives, adding, "It was encouraging that our organization, with your support, put together a really phenomenal job event that those people could come to."

Several commissioners seemed to agree, including K. Ray Bailey, who praised Teague and his team effusively.

"We have a group of young people who are bright and working every day to try to bring jobs to this community," gushed Bailey, who also chairs the coalition's board of directors. "I can remember the day when folks would sit around waiting for someone to call. They're not waiting for someone to call anymore: They're out there making those calls … to companies that have given indications that they may want to come, so my hat's off to them for the job they're doing."

Bailey also hinted that the coalition, a project of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, might have some big news soon.

"We've got some that we're working right now, but we can't talk about them. … I hope that we can make some announcements soon," he reported. "I'm excited about where we are and where we're going."

Not everyone in attendance shared Bailey’s enthusiasm, however. During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Jupiter resident Don Yelton dismissed the commissioners' discussion of jobs as political rhetoric.

"I'd like to thank each and every one of you for great campaign speeches today," he told them sarcastically, drawing a few grins and laughs from board members.

Candler resident Jerry Rice also scolded the commissioners, saying, "Jobs, jobs, jobs. … It sounds like President Obama when he said, ‘We want change.’ Remember that big word? Every time I hear 'jobs' it makes my skin crawl. Because we've got jobs around this area, but they don't pay anything," asserted Rice. "There aren't any really good jobs being created except for the high-level folks. The people that really need the jobs ain't getting them."

Other business

On other fronts, the board also: • Unanimously approved a rezoning request by Norris “Max” Clubb to allow for commercial development of a 1.27 acre tract at 1910 U.S. Highway 70, just west of its intersection with Warren Wilson Road. County planning staff and the Planning Board recommended approving the request, noting that surrounding property is already in commercial use. • Heard a report by Sheriff Van Duncan on the prevalence of substance abuse and mental-health problems among inmates at the county jail. In 2009, nearly 70 percent of detainees committed their crimes while under the influence of a controlled substance or in order to obtain one, noted Duncan. • Honored Buncombe County Library Director Ed Sheary for being named "Director of the Year" by the North Carolina Public Library Directors Association.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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