Asheville City Council

A little competition never hurts, right? But some downtown vendors disagree: Donald Ball, who operates the snack shop in the Buncombe County Courthouse, says his revenues have suffered since a hot-dog cart began operating right outside.

Cart owner Anderson Davis can relocate his business, but Ball can’t, he told Asheville City Council members at their June 22 formal session. Ball, who is blind, received nine months of special training through the state’s Services for the Blind Division, in order to get the chance to run a business. The problem, he told Council, is new city regulations that give Davis and other potential cart owners the right to set up operations on corners near the courthouse, City Hall and City/County Plaza. But that draws potential customers away from both Ball’s shop and the one in City Hall (also operated by a Services for the Blind client).

The city’s new regulations create a financial hardship for blind businessmen, argued spokesperson Martha Fawbush. She urged Council to reconsider the site locations listed by city staff as part of the proposed revisions to the city’s fee-and-regulation ordinance governing sidewalk dining, merchandising and A-frame signs.

“This is a real heart-wrencher,” responded Mayor Leni Sitnick. “[But] I don’t see how we can regulate competition for any group,” she said, apologetically.

Other Council members agreed. Said Chuck Cloninger, “We can’t start making decisions based on competition in the marketplace.”

Ball and others in his group grumbled. But Ball also urged Council to enforce other aspects of the proposed ordinance — like the requirement that merchants setting A-frame signs, chairs or tables outside for dining and/or sidewalk merchandising must leave at least a 6-foot passage for pedestrians to get by. Ball, who uses a cane to get around town, said he’s had difficulty navigating some of these obstacles.

That rule will be “one of the first things enforced,” promised Assistant Public Works Director Suzanne Malloy.

Downtown Development Manager Terry Clevenger added that A-frame signs — although common downtown — are prohibited by the city’s sign ordinance. The aim of the new regulations, she noted, is to balance the needs of business owners and pedestrians. And the proposed fees are meant to cover the time it takes city staff to adminster the rules to and monitor how businesses use public sidewalks.

In the past, downtown businesses paid a one-time, $25 fee for the right to use public sidewalks for outdoor dining. The low fee was meant to encourage such uses, back when downtown was first being revitalized, Clevenger explained. The new rules include an application fee that ranges from $175 (for dining or merchandising areas under 30 square feet) up to $2,000 (for larger ones). Pushcart vendors will pay $125, and annual renewal fees start at $25, she added.

The revised regulations mark the first time outdoor merchandising has been allowed on downtown sidewalks (by the owner of the adjacent shop; other vendors aren’t allowed — except during special events, such as Bele Chere). Building owners will be able to contract with the city for sidewalk space for a number of vendors, Clevenger explained (the Grove Arcade developers had requested this concession).

She also noted the need to create a category for sidewalk art: One downtown clothing store, for example, regularly seats a stuffed mannequin outside its door.

Said Fawbush, who is legally blind herself, “I have almost tripped over that mannequin, going down the street.”

On a motion by Tommy Sellers, seconded by O.T. Tomes, Council unanimously adopted the revised regulations. On a motion by Earl Cobb, seconded by Cloninger, they unanimously adopted the new fee schedule.

Read their lips

The new math is in: To balance the 1999-2000 budget, City Council will have to draw $115,571 out of the city’s general fund. But at least they won’t have to raise taxes to cover the shortfall … for now.

Mayor Leni Sitnick, however, “went out on a limb” (her words) and suggested that, in the future, more money will have to come from somewhere: state and federal funds, grants, public/private partnerships, an expanded property-tax base, an increase in sales taxes and — just maybe — new property taxes. “At some point, we’re going to have to look at things like taxes,” Sitnick declared, citing the city’s growing infrastructure needs and ever-increasing expenses. She noted that the city hasn’t raised taxes in 10 years, and hasn’t made any major annexations (a way to increase the property-tax base) in at least five.

But when Sitnick asked fellow Council members for further comments, no one said a word (especially not the T-word).

Council member Earl Cobb did say he was “disappointed” that so little money (approximately $800,000) has been earmarked for maintaining, building and repairing city streets and sidewalks. “That’s not enough. … We’re going to have to address [that] soon. … We can’t put it off forever.”

O.T. Tomes seconded Cobb’s concern, saying meeting such infrastructure needs is crucial to maintaining the city’s economic vitality.

And Barbara Field pleaded with her fellow Council members to reconsider their majority decision to postpone hiring a center-city director (a new staff position that would be an expanded version of the downtown-development-director post, cut by Council several years ago). Field emphasized that downtown’s continued growth and success depend on the leadership such a director could provide; and she mentioned that downtown — once a near-wasteland of boarded-up shops — now has more residents than the town of Biltmore Forest.

Field’s fellow members made no comments, however (in a previous work session, a narrow majority agreed to have the city’s new planning director — who’s scheduled to start work in July — consider the need for the new position, and report to Council in early fall).

And City Manager Jim Westbrook remarked that Council’s last-minute budget tweaking enables the city to buy the Royal Pines swimming pool (at a cost of roughly $250,000 per year, for five years) with almost no increase in the amount withdrawn from the general fund to balance the budget.

There were no other comments, and Chuck Cloninger moved that Council adopt the budget. Tomes seconded, and the motion passed unanimously.

In a budget-related matter, Council also approved an ordinance establishing the city’s transit system as a public enterprise, abolishing the Asheville Transit Authority (the city will manage the system in-house), and creating an Asheville Transit Commission — an advisory board which will consist, initially, of current ATA members. On Vice Mayor Ed Hay‘s motion, sconded by Sellers, the ordinance passed, 7-0.

Among the first fruits of the transit revamp, noted Hay, is a planned bus route that will carry passengers to and from the airport.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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