Residents of the Jupiter community jammed the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ meeting room on March 15 asking the board to give them the former Red Oak School for use as a community center.
During the public-comment period preceding the formal session, a string of citizens urged the commmissioners to transfer the property to a newly formed community group. Each speaker was applauded by a standing-room-only crowd.
“We have completed our 501(c)3 [nonprofit] application; we are incorporated as the Red Oak Community Club,” group president Paul Langford told the commissioners. “We plan to apply for grants as soon as our 501(c)3 goes through. We’ve been talking to folks about grants that are available and think we will be able to qualify for $150,000 in the first round.” Langford concluded by noting that the group expects restoration of the dilapidated structure to take five or six years.
In the past, the county Board of Education had leased the property to the county, which in turn leased it to a different community group. Due to the building’s poor condition, however, the insurance was canceled in October 2003.
Later in the comment period, Debbie Ivester assured the board that “any fund raising will be professional and well thought out.” Describing herself as a professional fund-raiser, Ivester said she is donating her services to the club.
“All of us want this to happen,” Vice Chairman David Gantt assured the group. But he went on to explain that there are three things that need to be addressed. “First someone has to buy the building. Then the building has to be fixed. Then the building has to be maintained.” And while praising the club for its fund-raising efforts, Gantt also noted that the school board is prohibited by law from giving away property.
Echoing that concern, Commissioner David Young cautioned, “You’re going to need some significant dollars.”
Other speakers supporting the Red Oak acquisition included Robert Zeoli, Marvin Collins, Earl Rice, Walt Duff and Tim Rice. Former Commissioner Jesse Ledbetter argued that the county has an obligation to do something for Jupiter. “Twenty-five years ago, we looked all over the county to find a place for a landfill,” he reminded the board. “The only place we could get a three-vote majority was down there on the river.” (The landfill was sited between the Jupiter community and the French Broad River.)
Ledbetter then delivered a warning: “If you don’t give them their community center, that’s strike two.”
Jupiter resident Don Yelton was the sole member of the public to sound a note of caution. “I think it’s great you got a turnout and the commission says it will listen to you,” he began. But he went on to observe that there are many worthy projects, saying, “Everybody deserves everything, but there’s nothing free.” Yelton also slammed the commissioners for contributing “$2 million to the Pack Square Conservancy for that stupid roundabout.” Accordingly, he concluded, “Before you give away that [school] property, I want to know how much money you have in it.”
Perennial watchdog Jerry Rice, meanwhile, took the commissioners to task once again on another matter: their refusal to televise public comment, especially in light of the turnout at this particular meeting. “You should put it on the agenda, so people can see this group,” Rice declared.
“We didn’t know they were coming,” retorted Young.
“You could put it on the agenda now,” Rice shot back.
At the end of the public-comment period, it took 15 minutes for the crowd to vacate the chamber — which meant that even if their comments weren’t part of the televised formal session, their departure was.
The board began the formal meeting by recognizing two local sports figures, one a veteran and the other just starting out.
Reynolds High School sophomore Talmak Boyd recently returned from Nagano, Japan, where he claimed two gold medals and a bronze in the 2005 Winter Special Olympics. In acknowledgment, the commissioners declared Talmak Boyd Day and awarded the young athlete a bronze commemorative plaque (see “Local Olympian Gears Up,” Feb. 16 Xpress).
Commissioner Carol Weir Peterson then presented a resolution proposing to rename the Skyland Recreational Facility in honor of Harold H. “Zeugie” Zeugner. Peterson prefaced her reading of the proclamation by noting that she and Zeugner had grown up together as near neighbors and shared more memories than she had time to relate. With Zeugner by her side, Peterson choked with emotion as she spelled out his accomplishments. A lifelong south Asheville resident, Zeugner was the guiding light behind the local Little League and played a key role in the county’s establishment of the Skyland Rec Center, said the resolution. He was also instrumental in locating the Asheville-Buncombe Library South Branch adjacent to the area’s public schools, it noted, and he co-founded (together with the Women’s Involvement Council) the county’s after-school program — now the largest in the state.
Zeugner twice admonished listeners, “It is sometimes necessary to make negative observations in order to achieve positive ends.” He continued, “When one makes negative observations, he should have a reasonable, attainable alternative in mind. That doesn’t always happen at this podium.”
And after voicing support for the Red Oak property transfer, Zeugner concluded by saying, “I would love to tell you that the Women’s Involvement Council — of all the programs I have ever been involved with, this is No. 1.”
Will create for food
Managing Director John Ellis of the Diana Wortham Theatre led off a lengthy presentation concerning the impact of the arts on the local economy. “Less than 20 years ago, there was a vision in this community to use the arts as a tool in economic development — a vision resulting in the creation of Pack Place as an anchor for downtown revitalization. … We now enjoy a vibrant downtown which is once again an economic engine, and Asheville is now recognized nationally as an arts community — as an arts destination,” he said. “Our residents enjoy a diversity of cultural opportunities few other communities our size can offer.”
Citing a national study conducted in 2000 by Americans for the Arts, Ellis said, “In our community, the arts have a direct economic impact twice that of communities of similar size across the nation.” He went on to note that we have a “cultural system composed of thousands of individual artists who have chosen to live here — to operate as small businesses.” This “ever-growing number of nonprofit arts groups in all disciplines [and] commercial businesses,” he noted, includes “art and craft galleries, clubs and music rooms, commercial promoters.” And when it comes to tourism, said Ellis, the bottom line is that “the cultural tourist stays longer and spends more. Now, 10 to 20 percent of my customers come from outside of Buncombe and the contiguous counties.”
Echoing Ellis’ viewpoint, Neal Hanks, president of the real-estate firm Beverly-Hanks & Associates, said: “Much of this [region’s] growth is fueled by in-migration — new people moving to our area to live. The vast majority of this in-migration is derived not from local job growth but of people who have chosen our area as a place to live based upon the quality of life which our area has to offer.” In addition, said Hanks, “Virtually every piece of marketing material produced by our firm promoting our region highlights the vibrant arts community.”
Cafe on the Square owner Tracy Adler told the commissioners: “It doesn’t matter what’s happening downtown — an arts walk, a concert, a play — we know we are going to be busy. On evenings when there is a show at the Diana Wortham Theatre, 15 to 40 percent of my customers are headed to that show. When it is sold out, 75 percent of my customers before the show are ticket holders.”
Adler, who is vice president of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, concluded, “It’s very important what support for the arts does for our businesses.”
Last up was Pam Myers, director of the Asheville Art Museum, who spoke about the growth of local arts programs over the past decade. “The art museum has more than tripled in size, in budget, in attendance, in programming and in the marvelous collections of American and regional art that we hold in the public trust,” she said. “We are bursting at the seams. Other nonprofit partners in Pack Place — The Health Adventure, Colburn Earth Science Museum and YMI — have similarly succeeded.” Myers described these institutions as “centers of lifelong learning. As you all know,” she continued, “in 2000 the Americans for the Arts survey showed that nonprofit arts groups and audiences made a $61 million impact on our economy.
“The success of an arts-centered approach to community development has far outstripped that which was envisioned by those dedicated individuals in government, business and philanthropy who forged partnerships and plotted the future of our community in the mid-1980s. Now, as in the past,” concluded Myers, “we need your help and participation in forging partnerships to envision the brightest possible future, and your leadership and support in getting us there.”
Then it was the commissioners’ turn. “I want you to keep in touch and tell us how we can help,” responded Gantt, adding, “This is low-hanging fruit, and we want to continue.”
Chairman Nathan Ramsey agreed, proclaiming, “The arts provide — bottom line — jobs, money and make the economy grow.”
And Peterson chimed in: “I would encourage folks who haven’t been in Pack Place in the last few months to visit and see what’s happened there. It’s wonderful.”
The board also quickly approved a series of appropriations, including: about $680,000 (to be reimbursed by the state) for surveys and engineering to plan remediation of last fall’s flood damage; $5 million for architectural work on capital projects for the city and county schools for which full funding has yet to be approved (though the commissioners have said they plan to do so after holding a public hearing); and borrowing $8 million to start financing those projects.
The loan was secured at 2.7 percent interest, Finance Director Donna Clark reported. The county will pay only the interest on the loan until it’s repaid next fall, using the proceeds from certificates of participation — a type of bond — that the county plans to issue, Clark explained.
Nipping nepotism and building boards
The final item of new business on the agenda was a revision of the county personnel ordinance. In the wake of criticism for having hired relatives of County Manager Wanda Greene, the commissioners approved a provision stating that any future hires of immediate relatives of the county manager will require approval by the Board of Commissioners.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the commissioners quickly made the following appointments to assorted boards and commissions: William Holland, Helen Plemmons, Carolyn Boyd, Lora Haas-Atkins and Skip Moneyhun (Nursing Home Advisory Committee); Brian Sawyer (Board of Adjustment); and Kathleen Balogh, Ken Brown, Greta Byrd, Ed Grushinski, Jeri Hahner, Marjorie Latta, Yvonne Miller, Rhonda Sachais, Andrea Sterritt and Kathleen Tate (Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee).
All votes taken during the meeting were unanimous. Commissioner Bill Stanley was absent, having had knee-replacement surgery earlier in the day. Acknowledging Stanley’s absence, Ramsey quipped, “I told him if he didn’t kick me so often, he wouldn’t have needed a knee.”
The board went into closed session at 6:17 p.m. to discuss legal matters, including “the case of Jordan and Mott v. Arrowood,” according to County Attorney Joe Connolly.