Rolling out the red carpet

Standing in the well-appointed lobby of the Inn at Biltmore Estate, state Sen. Steve Metcalf was considering the first 15 hours of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s three-day Legislative Weekend.

“You’d be surprised how many members have never been west, have never come west,” offered Metcalf. “For a lot of reasons, they don’t have a connection to this part of the state.”

Despite the previous day’s freak snowstorm, which had cut the number of legislators attending by nearly half (to 54, plus spouses), it soon became obvious that the Chamber was making an impression.

“You all sure know how to lay out the red carpet,” exclaimed Annette Hargett. She’d come to Asheville with her husband, state Sen. Cecil Hargett, who represents Onslow and Jones counties.

Moments later, the visiting senator himself seemed a bit bowled over. Hargett was revealing how the morning’s program had made him realize that folks in the western and far eastern parts of North Carolina need to work together.

“We’re separated in terms of distance — and we’re very close in often being left out, in terms of our needs,” Hargett observed. “So often, the money goes to the metropolitan areas.”

But then Hargett caught sight of the nation’s largest private residence through the Inn’s glass patio doors, and he stopped talking about rural Jones County (population 10,000).

“Is that Biltmore Estate through there?” he asked.

Even if you didn’t get to enjoy two free nights at the Inn (one of the weekend’s perks for legislators and spouses), a simple trip to the restroom was enough to leave one feeling a bit overwhelmed. The facilities near the morning’s meeting rooms featured piped-in light classical music and cloth towels (to be deposited in hampers), making for an elite washroom experience.

A change in the weather

Yet even the best-laid plans — and most generous sponsors — couldn’t fend off WNC’s consistently erratic weather. The previous evening, the snowstorm had prompted Chamber officials to scrap a scheduled reception at the N.C. Arboretum in favor of a get-together at the Inn. While burning logs hissed and crackled in the lobby’s fireplace, Chamber President/CEO Richard Lutovsky gazed out over snow-covered fields and sighed audibly.

“We’ve been planning this weekend for a year-and-a-half,” he said.

Continuing weather concerns also prompted a revamping of the next day’s agenda, which had included a quick tour of downtown Asheville, a program at A-B Tech’s Enka campus, and lunch outdoors on the quad at UNCA. Instead, organizers opted for a room at the Inn for two hours of morning PowerPoint presentations.

Standing at the meeting-room door, Rep. Wilma Sherrill chatted briefly with fellow Republican Patrick Ballantine, the Senate’s minority leader. Other WNC legislators — including Rep. Martin Nesbitt — moseyed in, along with House Co-Speaker Jim Black, Sen. Katie Dorsett of Guilford County, and many others.

In keeping with the Chamber’s 2003 Legislative Agenda (see box), the program focused on education. Speakers included the heads of A-B Tech, UNCA and Western Carolina University, who shared the bill with the superintendents of the Asheville City, Buncombe County and Madison County school systems.

The higher-education reps highlighted their achievements and touched on budgetary concerns. Meanwhile, Asheville City Schools Superintendent Robert L. Logan pleaded: “Please, at this time — no new programs. We need to tweak what we have, but the plate is full.”

But the freshest message came from the youngest speaker, T.C. Roberson High School senior Corley May, who’d accompanied Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Cliff Dodson.

“My education has been excellent, and I feel very well prepared for the challenges to come,” proclaimed May (whom Dodson called one of his “customers”).

May, however, worried that if funding cuts continue, students like her brother (a freshman) will suffer academically.

“I’m not asking you for my education,” stated May. “I’m asking you on behalf of those who cannot. I’m asking you, as the leaders of our government, what is the answer?”

Perhaps unaccustomed to hearing from someone so young, direct and self-possessed, the legislators responded with somewhat subdued applause.

Command performance

After a tour of Biltmore Estate and a bit of free time, the delegation was delivered to Studio B on the grounds of Blue Ridge Motion Pictures. The exterior of the building — a former textile factory — is a movie set depicting the facades of actual downtown Asheville shops, such as Green Eggs & Jam and Beanstreets Coffee. It’s almost a condensed version of the city, making it an appropriate place to talk about the merits of the area the legislators had come to see.

Preliminary speeches out of the way, one-third of the N.C. General Assembly sat in the cavernous, flat-black sound stage, staring out over half-finished meals and glasses of wine, waiting for the show to begin. After a couple of technical snafus — first the sound for the ballet dancers was too low, then the music was wrong — the dancers retreated behind the room-length wall of black curtains.

Ann Dunn of the Asheville Ballet apologized to the audience.

“We don’t have time for this,” she said from the lectern at the opposite end of the room, adding, “perhaps we’ll try again later.”

The Asheville Gentlemen, the evening’s musical act, quickly launched into a jazzed-up version of the theme from the Andy Griffith Show, accompanied by the din of clinking silverware on plates and the low hum of conversation. Despite the confusion, the mood remained jovial (it was a free meal, after all).

A few moments later, the dancers returned. This time, everything went right: The dancers moved gracefully, the crowd seemed captivated, and the applause at the end appeared utterly genuine.

Score one for the Asheville arts community.

Favorable reviews

Later that evening, Rep. Becky Carney, a former Mecklenburg County Commissioner, said she was “awed” by the variety of artistic offerings in Asheville.

“I know that different parts of the state invite legislators in for a weekend to showcase what they do within the region,” she noted. “I thought it would be a weekend of lobbying, and letting us know the needs here in this part of the state.

“Truly, that has been done,” continued Carney, “and it’s been done in an incredibly creative way. This morning, we had a great session, and they pulled together all the education components, from the university all the way down to the kindergarten programs, and the common thread that goes through that.”

“I’m thrilled that, tonight, the Chamber chose to showcase the arts,” she added, “and to tout the impact it’s had on economic development in the area.”

During the reception, Metcalf told Xpress he thought that all the time and money spent on the event would be worth it in the long run.

“Will these members walk out of here and pass a bill that does something for the arts in this area?” Metcalf asked. “No. That doesn’t happen. But if I’m on a committee and I’m talking about Western Carolina’s biotech program, or UNCA’s liberal arts program, or … AB-Tech’s Enka campus, these members will know exactly what I’m talking about, because they’ve been here. They’ve seen it.”

Two days later, Lutovsky sounded decidedly more upbeat, even mentioning that the Chamber will probably host another such event to coincide with the start of the legislature’s 2005 long session (only this time, they’re aiming for the month of May, when snowstorm season will hopefully be over).

“This activity is like many others,” Lutovsky reflected. “The measurement is really long-term. We will be continuing to push for projects and legislation we feel are important to this area. We believe that having the individual voting on those projects or legislation here to view our needs firsthand makes it an easier process for us.”

Brian Sarzynski contributed to this story.

Brought to you by these sponsors…

When you’re trying to untangle the complexities of politics, conventional wisdom says to follow the money. The following companies, organizations and other entities helped pay for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s April 10-12 Legislative Weekend, which carried an estimated $100,000 price tag, according to Chamber President/CEO Richard Lutovsky:

Banking: Asheville Savings Bank, BB&T, Bank of America, Bank of Asheville, Capital Bank, Central Carolina Bank & Trust, Clyde Savings Bank, First Citizens Bank &Trust, RBC Centura Bank, MountainBank, Wachovia;

Construction/development: Beverly-Grant, Biltmore Farms, Haynes Corp., Taylor & Murphy Construction Co.;

Energy: Progress Energy, PSNC Energy;

Health care: Mission St. Joseph’s Health System;

Film industry: Blue Ridge Motion Pictures;

Manufacturing: Eaton Cutler-Hammer;

Public: AdvantageWest (Buncombe County and the city of Asheville helped provide security);

Real estate: Beverly-Hanks & Associates;

Telecommunications: BellSouth, U.S. Cellular, Verizon;

Tourism-related: Biltmore Estate House, Gardens & Winery, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, the Inn on Biltmore Estate, and the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

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