Walk into the West End Bakery & Cafe on Haywood Road in West Asheville and you can quickly sense that something is afoot.
On a balmy evening in early April, the place fairly crackles with energy as 30-some neighborhood residents shoot the breeze over a potluck dinner before tackling a discussion about launching a new community food co-op.
The following night, 30 or more folks turn out at the same spot for a community meeting about how to revitalize the Haywood Road corridor, the avenue that winds through the heart of West Asheville’s traditional business district.
What’s going on here?
Apart from the muffins, bread, sandwiches and other fare served up at the West End Bakery by owners Krista Stearns and Cathy Cleary, the answer seems to be this: The community is what’s going on here.
A renaissance of sorts is unfolding on this little section of Haywood Road — driven by a crop of young neighborhood leaders who are spearheading mixed-use development projects aimed at enlivening a traditionally working-class community that has long borne the stinging label “Worst Asheville.”
And those efforts are winning support from enthusiastic residents who’d rather walk to a neighborhood business than drive across town.
Next door to the bakery, the once-slumbering Bledsoe Building — built in 1927 and still one of the largest structures on Haywood Road — is injecting new life into the neighborhood. Already home to number of shops and the newly opened Westville Pub, the sprawling structure will also house the Haywood Road Market, a food co-op (tentatively set to open in June), apartments and offices (scheduled to open in the quirky upstairs space this summer and fall).
Farther down Haywood, two other old buildings are slated for renovation as mixed-use projects combining commercial and residential space.
Those projects, along with a bevy of new businesses and renewed community interest, reflects a growing momentum for revitalizing of the entire Haywood Road corridor — a goal that’s been kicked around for years with only limited results.
Muffins of change
At the end of a long day at the West End Bakery (topped off by the co-op meeting), owners Stearns and Cleary still radiate enthusiasm as they talk about how their enterprise has blossomed into a neighborhood gathering place.
A couple of years ago, the two friends were bemoaning the shortage of places in West Asheville where they could simply grab a cup of coffee and a muffin. Their solution: open their own bakery.
In the spring of 2000, the two arranged to use the Uptown Cafe’s kitchen after hours to bake for a growing subscription customer base (plus business customers such as Malaprop’s) while they scouted around for a space of their own, Stearns recounts.
That’s when Cleary learned that a piece of property, including the current bakery building (formerly a storefront church called God’s Filling Station), was for sale — along with the massive Bledsoe Building next door, a parking lot in between and two nearby houses.
“It was just an opportunity we all saw that was too good to pass up,” recalls Stearns’ husband, Lewis Lankford.
Cleary, Stearns, Lankford and Cleary’s husband, Reid Chapman, joined with four other partners in fall 2000 to form West Asheville Development, a limited-liability company that borrowed money to buy the property. Although barely any had business or development experience, they took the plunge to form West Asheville Development. Almost all of the now nine partners, who are in their 30s and early 40s, live in the neighborhood. They did all the renovation work themselves, and the bakery opened in March 2001.
“It has been amazing to watch the community gather in this space and get to know each other,” muses Cleary, adding cheerfully, “And we really like to cook! So it all came together.”
“For the first six months, people would come in and say, ‘Thank you, thank you for sticking your necks out,'” recalls Stearns.
Folks of all ages stop by, she notes, including young couples who’ve formed a babysitting cooperative, as well as older residents — such as a 93-year-old man who faithfully picks up a copy of the New York Times every Sunday. For a moment, the pair forgets about being interviewed.
“I haven’t seen Richard!” Cleary exclaims, clutching her partner’s arm as she remembers a regular customer who’s dropped out of sight.
“I know,” Stearns replies, concern furrowing her brow. “I’m kind of worried about him.”
A few days later, Richard (who had been hospitalized with pneumonia) popped by the bakery again, a relieved Stearns noted later.
The giant awakens
With 24,000 square feet spread over two floors, the Bledsoe Building dominates the 700 block of Haywood Road at its intersection with Sand Hills Road and Vermont Avenue. Built by James T. Bledsoe in 1927, the building has housed a string of retail and commercial businesses over the years, including French’s Variety Store, Zindel’s Vermont Pastry Shop, Palace Pharmacy and Asheville Seed Company No. 3, according to research compiled by West Asheville Development.
More recently, the Go Grocery discount food store occupied the southeast corner of the building (the regional chain’s first outlet) until West Asheville Development bought the building last year from the chain’s owner, Jonathan David Caudle.
Go Grocery has used the upstairs as a storage area for the past 30 years or so; before that, it contained offices and apartments, mostly for folks connected with the railroads and the building trades, according to information gathered for the developers by Bowers Preservation. In the mid- to late-’40s, several so-called “war widows” lived there, including a Mrs. Annie M. Hartsell and a Mrs. Jennie M. Breedlove.
Walking through the Bledsoe Building’s second floor is a bit like stepping back in time, as if you’d happened upon a forgotten Thomas Wolfe-era boarding house. In the two wings that will once again serve as apartments, doors topped by transoms open onto a pair of central hallways featuring old-fashioned skylights covered in wire glass. Each of the 12 apartments has a unique shape, with barely any right angles — reflecting the challenge of fitting the rooms into a parallelogram-shaped structure. More than a few bathrooms sport an L-shape and include old-style honeycomb tile floors.
A vast center section (separate from the east and west apartment wings) will hold 10 offices, with new construction carrying up the large open space into suites that will share a conference room.
Meanwhile, on the ground floor, the former Go Grocery space is being gutted and renovated for the Haywood Road Market.
West Asheville Development is also seeking a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for the Bledsoe Building, notes project manager/co-owner David W. Ramsey.
He says he’s looking forward to the time a few months from now when renovations are complete and office workers and apartment dwellers fill the building — and the street.
“I think it’s going to create a little hot spot — a total hubbub of activity,” says Ramsey with gusto. “I’d like to see just people all over the sidewalks.”
The Westville Pub’s “secret opening” on April 13 hinted at what’s to come, as an appreciative crowd flocked in to socialize and soak up some live music — a key feature of the new venue, owned by Greg Turner and Lu Young. Despite the nonsmoking pub’s upscale look — complete with hunter-green walls and a granite-and-oak bar — a lager costs just $3.
Although West Asheville Development’s mission statement includes earning a fair profit, the office and apartment rents seem particularly reasonable, given the city’s notoriously pricey real-estate market. Apartments in the Bledsoe Building will run from $435 to $725 per month, office suites from $195 to $435 per month.
The rents represent the other aspect of the company’s vision — reflecting the neighborhood’s demographics while incorporating “smart growth” principles that aim to help create a more walkable, sustainable community.
“It doesn’t strike me as really sustainable what’s happening in downtown Asheville,” Lankford comments, referring to the explosion of luxury condos on the market.
Anyone who’s scoped out the local real-estate market lately knows that West Asheville (along with central Asheville) boasts some of the most reasonable housing prices in town.
That’s led to an influx of young people moving into West Asheville neighborhoods alongside longtime and many elderly residents — who help pass on a sense of neighborhood pride, says Craig White, president of the board of the budding Haywood Road Market food cooperative.
“The past negative connotations of West Asheville are quickly diminishing as new homebuyers move in and revitalize neighborhoods,” reports David Wall, a real estate agent with RE/MAX Advantage Realty. “There is a diverse group of people moving into West Asheville .. [and] people are moving there because of the affordability thing.”
Alex Brown, a 29-year-old Nebraska Avenue resident, agrees. “This is the last place where young professionals can start a family,” he maintains.
Like the partners in West Asheville Development, Brown, too, is involved in a first-time neighborhood development project on Haywood Road.
The newcomers are among those who have come out to support the West End Bakery and who are mobilizing behind the food co-op and other ventures.
“These things really feed off of each other,” White notes, adding that he can’t count the number of folks who declare that they’ll never have to leave West Asheville once the co-op opens.
All of the folks involved with West Asheville Development are supporters of the food co-op, tentatively scheduled to open in June in the Bledsoe Building. The project has plenty of neighborhood support as well. More than 60 people showed up at the initial co-op meeting held back in October; a general meeting last December drew a crowd of about 100.
“It is truly a community thing,” Lankford declares. “It’s just something that couldn’t be done if people didn’t respond the way they have. It’s pretty neat.”
White says community enthusiasm and commitment (including at least 172 dues-paying owner-members so far) mean that the co-op will become a reality in less time than the 18-month to two-year period that’s typical for pulling a food cooperative together.
“I think everybody’s glad to have a community-owned grocery store in the neighborhood,” White offers. “One of our main goals has been to make sure it’s not just a generic co-op, but designed to fit the West Asheville community.”
That, says White, will be accomplished by keeping two main goals in mind: stock what people want and make sure prices are affordable.
Both he and Lankford are quick to point out that the French Broad Food Co-op was approached about opening a satellite store in West Asheville. Though that proposal didn’t pan out, the FBFC has been “very supportive” in offering tips and technical advice, Lankford explains.
A recent meeting of the budding Haywood Road Market cooperative’s members showcased the group’s esprit de corps. In a matter of minutes, a request for donations to help sponsor a West Asheville Little League team yielded $134.58.
The co-op meeting also featured a long discussion on whether to offer senior-citizen discounts. Though the issue remained unresolved, several people voiced their concerns about wanting to make the co-op affordable to elderly folks in the neighborhood who are on fixed incomes — though in such a way that the discounts won’t embarrass them.
White, for one, is encouraged by the number of people interested in the co-op and what it means for the neighborhood.
“I’m very tickled,” White avows. “I feel like this is the place to be in Asheville right now.”
The Bledsoe Building isn’t the only mixed-use development popping up along the 2.6-mile Haywood Road corridor.
In their first entrepreneurial effort, Alex Brown and three friends bought a building at 415 Haywood Road (at Westwood Place) last fall. They plan to renovate the circa-1919 building putting retail and/or commercial space on the ground floor, and artist’s studios and apartments up above, with a goal of keeping prices affordable. The building once housed a butcher shop, Ed’s Superette and the West Asheville Police/Community Resource Center, Brown notes.
“It’s our first experience with real estate and it’s a huge amount of stuff to learn,” says Brown. “But we’re figuring it out.”
Another group is planning to renovate a 1920s landmark at Haywood Road and State Street that has seen better days. Known for the huge RC Cola sign painted on its west side, the building has sat vacant for 27 years, says Wayne Raab, a Haywood County resident who’s renovating the building with two partners. Plans call for an upstairs apartment and a cafe/bakery downstairs to be named for a business that operated there during World War II: The Chat & Nibble Cafe and Bakery. The Chat & Nibble will be run by Raab’s wife, Belinda, stepdaughter, April Moon Harper (a former Atlanta chef/cookbook writer who lives in West Asheville), and friend, Terry Miller.
Though not directly influenced by the West End Bakery’s success, Raab admits: “There’s safety in numbers. … We hope it’s going to be part of the foundation of a much larger movement.”
Raab even hopes that the downtown crowd might trek to West Asheville for lunch. Voicing a somewhat different view than the West End Development group (which is focusing more on serving neighborhood residents), Raab hopes that little shops springing up on the corridor might draw sightseers to the west side of town.
A number of other businesses have blossomed recently on Haywood Road, including a soul-food restaurant (Ms. Kasey’s), several tiendas catering to the swelling Latino population, a multimedia company, Black Box Studio, and even a casket business, Asheville Retail Caskets Co.
The thoroughfare even has its own Web presence now, a business- and community-oriented Web site called OnHaywood.com. The site — started just last month by Alice io Oglesby and Dawn Robuck — offers a virtual tour of Haywood Road and neighborly features such as a community calendar.
The big picture
These recent changes seem all the more remarkable given the seemingly sporadic efforts to jumpstart the revitalization of West Asheville over the past few years.
One such push that started in the mid-’90s languished after the resignation of then-Community Development Director Leslie Anderson, who had tried to spark a downtown-like revival for the west side of town, former West Asheville Business Association President Richard Nantelle told Xpress three years ago. A seeming lack of community interest also hindered progress.
In 1999, however, West Asheville revitalization efforts got an official stamp of approval when Asheville City Council adopted the Haywood Road Corridor Plan, a blueprint setting out a number of goals aimed at making the street more vibrant and beautiful. West Asheville Development’s ambitious project marks a major step in accomplishing one of the corridor plan’s goals — encouraging compatible new development that serves adjacent neighborhoods and helps create an economically vibrant pedestrian environment. But much more work remains to be done.
At a recent meeting to discuss the corridor plan, the enthusiasm level for pitching in to work on accomplishing other goals ran high. Audience members prioritized the goals they felt were most important, and seven people signed up for a steering committee to work with the city’s Planning Department to accomplish those goals.