Get more eyes on The Block, and the winos and drug dealers will disappear. That’s the operating theory behind a cooperative effort to get the new South Pack Square Community Center up and running.
“No one’s going to invest down here until we clean things up,” says Doug Beatty, co-owner of Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria, a Biltmore Avenue business adjacent to The Block.
His sentiment is shared by many business owners and local residents who want to restore the historic district — once the civic and business center of Asheville’s African-American community. The past year has seen its share of cleanup efforts, cosponsored by the city, Quality Forward, the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, the Asheville Police Department and the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation (EMSDC). Most recently, a performance by the Asheville Youth Symphony drew hundreds of spectators to The Block’s small park.
All these efforts are starting to pay off, says Beatty, a member of Asheville’s downtown-based Merchants Action Coalition: “I went down to The Block the other week, and there wasn’t a crack dealer in sight. That was nice.”
Hoping to maintain that trend — and thus attract business owners and other investors to this largely rundown section of downtown — MAC recently gave the nearly completed center a $5,000 check, Beatty reports. “I’ve noticed less drug activity as the [center] nears completion,” he adds.
The gift will bridge the gap remaining between the amount raised via federal and private grants and the center’s actual need, says MAC President Joe Eckert, co-owner of the Laughing Seed restaurant. Eckert and Beatty hope to raise at least $3,000 more from downtown business owners.
MAC’s donation caps a several-year effort to establish the new center: A diverse group of residents, business owners and activists started meeting on Fridays at least two years ago, discussing ways to improve conditions on The Block. And, last year, the EMSDC used about $85,000 in federal and private grants to purchase the long-vacant property at 72 Market St., according to EMSDC Project Director Elizabeth Russell. More than a decade ago, that building housed a night club; before that, it was a garage, she recounts. Since then, however, it has stood vacant. And like many derelict buildings on the once-vibrant Block, 72 Market St. attracted vagrants, drug dealers and winos.
Hoping to reverse that trend, the Asheville Police Department announced plans, with the help of the EMSDC, to establish a new police substation at the site.
And volunteers have spent hundreds of hours renovating the property, Russell notes.
With all these cooperative shoulders to the wheel, the center — slated for a grand opening next month — expects to provide a variety of community services, she says, including literacy and GED tutoring, job training and job-search assistance. In partnership with Mission-St. Joseph’s Hospital, Mount Zion church will also lease office space in the 2,400-square-foot building for a research team studying infant-mortality rates among the area’s minority population — a project funded by the Janirve Foundation, she adds. The remaining half of the facility will house the Asheville Police Substation, which will serve as a base for bike, foot and mounted-horse patrols. (The police activity is being funded in part by a grant for hiring five additional downtown officers).
“We’re now ready to move forward,” Russell observes. But, more remains to be done, she points out: The center needs landscaping and other finishing touches — and, once it opens its doors, more volunteers will be needed for staffing.
EMSDC Board Chairman James Geter gratefully accepted MAC’s donation on May 12. Acknowledging everyone’s efforts to establish the center, he said, “This represents the community’s coming together to effect change.”
Beatty agrees, but he, like Russell, emphasizes the center’s ongoing need for assistance. “[The center’s] budget’s going to fall a little short on its grant money, so MAC thought we’d help out. … Now we need your help,” he says, challenging other business owners and residents to put their checkbooks where their vision is.
Donations can be sent to the South Pack Community Center, P.O. Box 3015, Asheville, NC 28802. Beatty can be reached for questions and suggestions at 281-3910. Russell can be reached at 281-1227 or 281-1229, or e-mailed at email@example.com. The EMSDC office is located at 70 Market St.