Asheville City Council

The Asheville City Council’s whirlwind March 8 formal session blew through the Council chamber in less than an hour. But when the dust cleared, a number of projects and initiatives had been nudged along. Most of the points on Council’s consent agenda (a cluster of separate, noncontroversial items that’s typically approved on a single vote) consisted of approving the next step in a long-term project or finding the money to pay for upgrades.

Azalea Park, now under construction along the Swannanoa River in east Asheville, constitutes a major link in the city’s evolving parks-and-greenways system. Construction of the 155-acre park — including a soccer complex, a disc-golf course, parking and picnic facilities — began last spring, with an eye toward opening in the fall of 2004. But flood damage set things back considerably. Now, however, the park is back on track (thanks to $1 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds), and the city hopes it will open this spring, Superintendent of Administration Debbie Ivester told Xpress. To date, the city has spent about $2 million on the park (not including the FEMA funding), most of it from grants. But more money is needed to complete the project.

Accordingly, the consent agenda included a request for authorization to apply for a $250,000 grant from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. If the grant comes through, the city will provide the required matching funds via in-kind contributions of labor and equipment. Significant additional funding would still be needed for the park.

Getting and spending

On the indoor-recreation front, Council designated $425,000 for equipment and facilities for URTV, Asheville/Buncombe’s incipient public-access cable channel. URTV Treasurer Bob Bowles gave a progress report, telling Council members that the board is in the process of siting the station’s studios. Meanwhile, the search for a general manager continues, noted Bowles.

And south of town, Council approved the transfer of two parcels of land — totaling about 13.6 acres — to the Asheville Regional Airport Authority for $1.19 million. Activity is on the increase, explained airport Director David Edwards, and the current parking facilities were filled to capacity at least once during the month of February. The airport may use the new property, located just across Airport Road, to accommodate additional parking or rental-car facilities, said Edwards.

Because the Airport Authority cannot legally own property, however, the city will retain ownership but is relinquishing the right to develop the parcels. The money will go into the city’s fund balance to be allocated for unspecified purposes.

“We believe this is a good deal for the city of Asheville, and it will enhance the airport facility,” Ed Vess, the city’s coordinator of field services, told Council.

Drumming up attention

For more than two years, assorted drummers, dancers and onlookers have converged on downtown Asheville’s Pritchard Park on Friday nights, sending thundering rhythms pulsing through the city streets. But the combined pressures of increased demand for the facility and changes in both city policy and downtown dynamics have made it harder for the impromptu gatherings to continue.

During the public-comment period, Joshua Massey and two other drummers worried that the situation reflects a preference on the city’s part for more organized events at the park.

“It’s one of the things that makes Asheville what it is,” noted Massey. “We just don’t want this to end. We’re not a group; we are people at the park.”

Although the drummers are allowed to use the park free of charge, any scheduled event trumps the informal get-togethers. And the nature of the gatherings makes it difficult for the drummers to come up with the money to reserve the park. Last year, the city raised the reservation fee from $25 an hour to $100 for three hours.

Superintendent of Cultural Arts David Mitchell told Xpress that the drummers had approached him about reserving Fridays for their event. This, he said, “poses a problem for any other group who wants to use the park.” Instead, Mitchell said, his department had offered the drummers the use of the park for one Friday per month, but they refused. Acknowledging the drummers’ contribution to downtown, however, Mitchell emphasized, “It has never been our position to prohibit the drum circle.”

In the past year, Pritchard Park has grown in popularity, hosting such diverse events as the Bonfires for Peace concerts and Cinema in the Park.

And City Manager Jim Westbrook told Council that, since more people now live downtown, noise complaints about the circle have also increased. But City Attorney Bob Oast said he was unaware of any citations having being issued.

“It is a big event now,” noted Council member Brownie Newman. And though no decision was reached, the drummers were advised to continue meeting with city staff to try to work out a compromise.

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]

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