The Parks and Recreation Department is ready to put that one-cent dedicated tax hike, approved by Asheville City Council on July 1, to work. But instead of using the $400,000 to leverage a long-term bond, Parks and Rec Director Irby Brinson says the city will concentrate on six projects designed to have an immediate impact on the communities they serve.
At the Aug. 15 Council work session, Brinson reported that 35 citizens who attended a public meeting on parks in late July supported using the $400,000 for specific projects this year, rather than paying interest on borrowing approximately $4 million, the balance on a 20-year bond.
While the $4 million would have a bigger impact, Brinson said the citizens group — many of whom participated in the Parks and Greenway Master Plans — wanted to wait and see which way the political winds were blowing: “Our recommendation is we might want to wait one year to determine whether a future bond referendum will be considered.”
Most of the projects are slated to happen quickly. First up are the demolition of the Royal Pines Recreation Center and construction on the site of a new playground similar to a popular one recently built at the Jones School. The city’s contribution will be $30,000. With the Leathers Playground Company’s contribution, the project’s estimated worth will be more than a quarter-million dollars. This drew lots of praise from Council members, including Charles Worley, who noted that the dilapidated Royal Pines building “looked ripe for burning.” Brinson agreed, and said that the Asheville Fire Department will burn the building down for “practice” on Aug. 26. The playground will be built Nov. 14-19.
Another project is the renovation of the cafeteria and auditorium at the Reid Recreation Center, the city’s largest and most heavily used. In addition, access areas for people with disabilities will be improved. The estimated total cost is $50,000.
The Burton Street playground will also receive $50,000 worth of new equipment. For future projects, Brinson is hopeful that the N.C. Department of Transportation will contribute more than a half-million dollars for “environmental justice” — a bureaucratic term referring to repayment for eminent domain; the Burton Street area will likely be heavily affected by the NCDOT’s plan to widen I-240.
Brinson said $75,000 will be used to finish another project, the Broadway Greenway Master Plan — which must be completed before the city can apply for grant funding — and to buy the remaining 15 percent of the property.
This fall, an additional $75,000 will be used to move bleachers from the old Asheville Motor Speedway to Memorial Stadium for youth football games, and to assist in completing the roller-hockey rink at the new French Broad River Park.
The final project on Parks and Rec’s “needs” list is a new Little League baseball field for north Asheville. Brinson said residents have been asking for a new field in that neighborhood for 30 years, and that a recent tournament held on the existing field took three weeks to complete. “That’s a lot of strain on the volunteer coaches and umpires,” he noted. The new ballpark will be built behind the Jones School in a field that Mayor Leni Sitnick noted “has a history of controversy.” She explained that neighborhood residents were promised by the city many years ago that the field would remain a nature trail. Brinson replied that the proposed ball field would have no lights and would essentially be limited to one game per evening — with limited parking and no parking on Kimberly Avenue.
“These projects meet our parks needs,” commented Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger, “and the large group of people who endorsed those projects is a group that has been active for two or three years in the parks.”
The Economic Development Commission is bent on drawing information-technology businesses to the area, and Council seems happy, so far, with how the EDC is spending the $50,000 recently allocated by the city. During the budget season, Council members heavily debated the value of contributing the money to the EDC in exchange for the city having one voting seat on the commission. Previously, the city was a nonvoting member of the commission, which is composed predominately of Chamber of Commerce and Buncombe County appointees.
“We realize this was a close vote,” said Dave Porter, the new vice president of economic development for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. “Now we’ll demonstrate that this was money well spent.”
Porter said the EDC will use the city funding to create a marketing strategy and advertising campaign for attracting information-technology companies from cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Austin and New York — as well as to help the businesses already located here. The commission also plans to create a business-resource guide for local and state contacts, and to conduct an office-space market study to determine available space and prices.
“Recruiting the high-tech industries, that’s certainly the direction we need to be going in,” said Cloninger, who sits on an EDC subcommittee. Councilman Ed Hay, also on the subcommittee, emphasized that expanding information technologies is a goal for the city that fits well with the Strategic Economic Development Plan.
In other news, Asheville Economic Development Director Mac Williams told Council that the city is reapplying for the designation of a N.C. Chamber of Commerce Development Zone — a program that encourages economic development in impoverished areas. He explained that Asheville’s current development-zone designation is set to expire Dec. 31, 2000. The state offers significant tax credits for creating jobs and investing in business equipment within the designated area. In 1999, legislators increased these benefits but also specified new criteria controlling the size and location of development zones, Williams said. Asheville’s new development zone will be an area in which at least 20 percent of its total population is living below the poverty level, and which offers reasonable opportunities for economic development.
Williams reported that a business-climate survey of Asheville has been completed with help from the Western Carolina University Mountain Resource Center. He said the most significant results from the survey of 1,000 businesses revealed a stable business climate, with about 50 percent of the respondents reporting that they’ve been in business between five and 20 years.
Artsy signs ahead
Council will consider two amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance that will directly affect how downtown businesses display advertising signs and artwork.
In response to the city’s designation by American Style magazine as a top arts destination, Chief Planner Gerald Green said the city will be relaxing its standards for signs to allow businesses more freedom and creativity. He explained that displays such the pepper statue in front of Chili’s Restaurant and the wire sculpture of a mountain climber at Black Dome (both on Tunnel Road) are in violation of the city’s sign ordinance.
“The mountain climber, I like that,” mused Hay. “I’d like an ordinance to allow for that. I’d like to see us stretch this out, make it less strict.”
Green told Council that the amendment will endorse “a more whimsical approach to the incorporation of art and works of art by businesses in the building and site design.” The new restrictions will prohibit the inclusion of logos or business names on the displays. The Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously recommended adoption of the ordinance.
The other proposed amendment would establish standards for A-frame signs (a.k.a. sandwich boards) in the central business district to allow sidewalk advertising of goods and services. Green said the Planning Department worked with the Downtown Commission and the Merchants Action Coalition to create the standards.
“This started out by us banning A-frames altogether,” noted Cloninger. “Now, it’s a good example of the private sector of downtown merchants working well with the city.”