Buzzworm news briefs

Campaign Calendar

Primary registration deadlines: If you are not already registered to vote in Buncombe County, you must register by Friday, April 7, in order to vote in the May 2 primary election. Only contested seats are on the primary ballots, which are distributed by party affiliation (Democrat, Republican or Unaffiliated). Changes in party affiliation must also be made by April 7. For further registration information, call the Board of Elections at 250-4200.

Voting by mail: Registered voters who plan to vote by mail can request absentee ballots from the Buncombe County Board of Elections. The deadline for those requests is April 25, with exceptions for illness or disability.

“Early” voting: One-stop absentee voting (or “early” voting) begins April 13 and ends April 29. One-stop voting takes place at the Board of Elections office, 189 College St. in Asheville.

Volunteering to help: Precinct workers are needed around the county for both the May primary and the November general election. To serve in this capacity, you must be a registered voter in Buncombe County and must be affiliated with the Democratic or Republican Party. For additional information, contact the Board of Elections at 250-4200 or visit www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/Election.

Candidates, organizations and citizens: Send your campaign-event news — as far in advance as possible — to nholder@mountainx.com, (fax) 251-1311, or “Campaign Calendar,” Mountain Xpress, P.O. Box 144, Asheville, NC 28802.

New paper on the block

After being gone for 25 years, one of the first things Johnnie Grant and her husband Robert Grant did on returning to Asheville in 2003 was take a walking tour to reacquaint themselves with the city they grew up in.

“We noticed that there were approximately 31 publications available downtown,” Johnnie remembers. “But not one of them addressed the issues of the multicultural minority communities that are here in Asheville, and I was kind of perplexed.”

Although the Grants had visited Asheville twice a year during their time away — for Bele Chere and Christmas — “We would never see what was happening with people’s lives when they [weren’t] celebrating,” she says.

Now that she’s back “in the mix,” Johnnie says, she’s more aware of the struggle within Asheville’s minority communities. She points to issues that make it hard to get by, from high taxes to a lack of affordable housing to a shortage of jobs that pay a living wage.

The Grants had come back with the intention of doing something positive for their community. It seemed like what their and other minority communities needed was a voice. After doing some research and talking to leaders in both the African-American and Latino communities, the Grants decided to create a newspaper that could be that voice.

Earlier this month, The Urban News & Observer published its inaugural issue, with plans to publish on the second Friday of every month. Johnnie is the publisher and her husband Robert runs the business side of things.

In a nutshell, Johnnie describes the monthly publication this way: “It’s a multiethnic, multicultural newspaper designed to serve the under-served and disenfranchised.

“We don’t specifically gear our publication to the African-American community,” she notes. “The Latino community, the Jewish community, the Greek community, all those people play a big part in what gets published in this paper.”

The publication, she says, will “report on the progress that these communities are making and … move them into the forefront so that they can play a bigger role.”

The Urban News & Observer office is housed in the J.A. Wilson Building on Eagle Street, within “The Block,” Asheville’s historic African-American business district, which is in the process of being redeveloped. It’s a building the publisher recalls playing in as a child, in an area she remembers as “the heart of the segregated African-American community in Asheville.”

“This is home,” Johnnie says simply. “This is where I feel comfortable. It’s nothing fancy but it has meaning for me.”

Her greatest hope for the newspaper is that it will empower readers in their daily lives. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re black, brown, yellow, red, white or whatever,” she says. “I hope that people will be able to use this as a tool to reach out … to communicate, to build bridges and make Asheville a better place.”

For more information or to find out where you can pick up a copy, contact The Urban News & Observer at 253-5585 or theurbannews@bellsouth.net.

— Lisa Watters

Diamonds in the rough

Asheville’s plans for developing Richmond Hill Park met a rough reception at a March 23 open house held at the Buncombe County Schools Administrative Service Building. The city-sponsored event featured separate stations dedicated to the National Guard Armory, traffic, park security, the environment, park planning and recreation programs, presenting detailed information about every aspect of the project.

Most of the several dozen of people in attendance were staunchly opposed to the plan, and many took issue with the city staffers at each table. Neighbors expressed concerns about traffic, noise and security, while environmentalists argued against fragmenting Asheville’s largest park.

The city’s plans include building four ball fields in the center of the park for use by the North Asheville Little League. A new National Guard facility is also being sited on part of the property, and the federal government has agreed to grade the fields as part of the deal.

Traffic on Richmond Hill Road is expected to double on weekends when the two disk-golf courses, baseball diamonds and armory are all in use. Environmental planners maintain that the project will affect only the least environmentally sensitive portion of the park, amounting to just 13 percent of the total area.

Opponents, however, noted that the planned Wilma Dykeman Riverway also includes ball fields and that siting them on riverside brownfields would provide a double benefit: cleaning up those sites while providing needed recreational facilities.

— Cecil Bothwell

I hear that train a-comin’

Too bad they can’t be riding the rail to get here, but the state legislature’s House Select Committee on Expanding Rail Service is coming to Asheville for a public meeting on Friday, April 7.

The committee is tasked, in part, with evaluating the potential effects of increased rail service on tourism and economic development in Western North Carolina. Asheville, which had passenger-rail service from 1880 to the 1970s, is one of the targeted destinations for potential expansion. The committee’s work follows up on a phased plan adopted for WNC in 2001, which, according to the state Department of Transportation’s Rail Division Web site (www.bytrain.org), has been delayed due to “current budgetary constraints.” The department has, however, continued to assist with station renovations and rail-safety improvements.

The new committee was established through legislation sponsored by Rep. Ray Rapp of Mars Hill and Rep. Louis Pate Jr. of Wayne County in the House, and Sen. Martin Nesbitt Jr. of Buncombe County, and includes eight members each from the Senate and the House. It is convening at various sites around the state, and is due to make an interim report of findings and recommendations to the upcoming 2006 legislative session.

Judy Ray, a Black Mountain resident and longtime rail-revival advocate, is pleased the commission is coming to Asheville for an update, but acknowledges that the holdup on expanding service continues to be financial. “We have to get creative,” Ray says. “First of all, we have to convince the railroads that this is necessary and that they’re willing to work with us. I think that’s been the major hang-up.”

“We want the [passenger] service not to interfere,” Ray says of the potential conflict between passenger and freight trains and their scheduling. Track improvements being discussed, she says, include providing longer sidings on the lines, which would allow passenger trains to move aside and wait for the freight-train traffic.

Ray chairs the independent WNC Rail Corridor Committee, which formed in the late ’90s with representation from all nine proposed stops for the western wing of the proposed passenger-rail service. She notes that passenger stations in Old Fort, Marion and Morganton have already used DOT funds to refurbish depots in anticipation of the eventual service.

“The city [of Asheville] purchased land for our station, along with the state,” notes Ray. The land for the future station is located on the northeast side of the tracks in Biltmore Village.

“This is a big meeting,” Ray said of the April 7 get-together, which the public is welcome to attend. “We want to show the legislature how much interest there is in North Carolina passenger-rail service.”

The meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Expanding Rail Service takes place at 10 a.m. on Friday, April 7, at the Crowne Plaza Resort on Holiday Inn Drive in Asheville.

— Nelda Holder

Lending an ear

Harvesting public opinion may make for a tough week, but the developers of a planned large, mixed-use development on Haywood Road in West Asheville are betting that a marathon design charrette held March 20-23 will pay off down the line.

For four days, a five-member team huddled in the gymnasium of the St. Joan of Arc Church with residents and even a few city staffers, hashing out concerns, hopes and roughed-in plans for the block-sized residential/commercial development. And on Thursday, neighborhood residents — many of whom had sat in on all four meetings — got to see the final product, sketched out only moments before.

The plans show a cluster of houses and condos surrounding public gathering spaces, all set behind a large, mixed-use building fronting Haywood Road between Blue Ridge and Mitchell avenues. (The church, which now occupies the site, had already been planning to move.)

Developer Kevin Crump maintains that the charrette can only help the project, both by fostering community buy-in and smoothing the way though the city’s approval process. Traditionally, large-scale developments can take months and thousands of dollars to plan — only to be stalled due to lack of public input.

But not this time, vows Crump, adding, “No none can say they didn’t know.” He also met with local businesspeople, including the West Asheville Business Association.

Although the developer has racked up other projects in Tampa, Fla., where he lived until moving here last October, this is his most ambitious undertaking to date. Crump also says he wants to make alternative-energy and “green” building concepts a priority. “I’ve always had a green kind of thing with my work,” he notes.

Working on the fly, the planners tried to address a buffet of concerns raised by residents, including affordable housing, sprawl, public space and increased traffic on the already-choked Haywood Road. And though nonprofits such as RiverLink and the city itself have hosted charrettes in the past, this may be a first for Asheville in terms of large-scale private development.

Facilitator Ben Brown, a journalist who’s hosted charrettes around the Southeast, says the idea is to open the planning process wide and let the public have a hand in shaping a development. As he puts it, “Get everyone in the room that can help a decision or block a decision.”

And though the experience had the feel of a marathon and the people working feverishly to cull key themes from the mass of public comments were worn down by days of meetings, both they and folks who showed up to hear the results appeared pleased with the process.

“This is precedent-setting for West Asheville,” said local resident Mimi Strang. “The process certainly is progressive to engage the community to this degree.”

City Council member Bryan Freeborn, who lives in West Asheville, attended one of the meetings and says he came away impressed by the effort.

“It gives me a lot of hope that maybe this will set the stage for developers,” he told Xpress.

But it remains to be seen whether other local developers will be prepared to cede that much control over their investments to public opinion.

“Developers have called us to say, ‘Are you crazy?'” noted architect Daryl Rantis.

The proposal must now go before the city’s Technical Review Committee and Planning and Zoning Commission. If it clears those hurdles, the project could come before City Council as early as May.

Up-to-date plans are available at www.greenplanwnc.com.

— Brian Postelle

The folklorists are coming!

What remains of Roseland Garden in Black Mountain — a weathered, barn-like facade peeking through a screen of trees — hardly hints at the place’s vibrant past. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing for five decades, the now-sagging structure was a thriving social locus for the town’s African-Americans.

Today, establishments like Roseland Garden tend to get lumped under the broad headings of “juke joint” or “roadhouse,” but Black Mountain resident Don Talley says it was considerably more than that in its day.

“Countless live bands played there, there were dances held there, as well as meetings and social gatherings of all sorts. They served food, and of course you could buy a drink. And for a long while, back when most theaters were open to whites only, it also served as a movie house.”

While Roseland Garden was “built by blacks for blacks,” as Tally says, both blacks and whites frequented the establishment, making it one of Buncombe County’s earliest integrated businesses.

Talley, who is helping the community piece together Roseland Garden’s history through interviews and photographs, will give a talk about the landmark spot this Saturday, April 1, at the North Carolina Folklore Society’s annual conference, which will be held at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts on State Street.

The conference, which is free and open to the public, starts Friday at 7 p.m. with a traditional music jam and local-film screening at the Monte Vista Hotel in Black Mountain.

The Folklore Society’s conference rotates yearly among coastal, piedmont and mountain locations. Last year it was held in Raleigh; the year before it came to Harkers Island. This year’s theme, appropriate to the time and place, is “Changing Traditions in the Mountains”

Along with Talley’s presentation, Cassie Robinson of Mars Hill College will illuminate the legacy of the “Minstrel of the Appalachians,” Bascom Lamar Lunsford; UNC Chapel Hill graduate student Susan Hester will profile a traditional bluegrass jam session; and Debbie Miles of the Center for Diversity Education at UNCA will shed light on the history of integration in Buncombe County’s schools.

The conference will round out with Saturday afternoon group tours of local scenic and historic attractions.

For details, call Emily Lower at 645-9176, or e-mail her at loweremily@yahoo.com.

— Kent Priestley

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