You won’t be reading about the Asheville City Council’s Sept. 17 work session in this space for one simple reason: There wasn’t one. Instead, Council spent a week checking out how other cities deal with things like sprawl and transportation issues.
Five Council members joined three county commissioners and several dozen other local leaders visiting Portland, Ore. It was the eighth in a series of annual InterCity Visits organized by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. The idea is to give city leaders a close-up look at how other cities handle the same kinds of issues we face here at home, explains Laura Copeland, vice president of the Chamber’s Workforce Development/Public Policy Department.
The Chamber decides which cities to visit based on input from staff, the community and those who have taken part in previous trips. Destinations often spotlight particular issues (a trip to Boise, Idaho, for example, examined riverfront development). Other InterCity Visits have taken Asheville leaders to such places as Chattanooga, Tenn.; Charleston, S.C. and San Antonio, Texas.
Portland (motto: “The City That Works”) has gained attention for its urban-growth boundary, which restricts and attempts to direct the flow of new development. The city is also known for its light-rail transit system and pedestrian-friendliness.
The Portland trip was originally scheduled for last year, but the group’s Sept. 11 travel date saw them stranded at the Atlanta airport after air travel was shut down nationwide.
Mayor Charles Worley was anticipating an intense educational experience. “You hit the ground running,” he said. The first events start just after the group arrives at its hotel on Tuesday afternoon (Sept. 17). And except for some scheduled free time in the evenings and a few hours each afternoon, the tours, lectures and meetings won’t stop until the delegation heads for the airport Friday morning.
The agenda unveiled at a Sept. 12 orientation meeting reads like a hot list of Asheville’s top concerns: land-use planning, urban-growth boundary, convention center and performing-arts facilities, urban renewal, business recruitment and affordable housing.
“It’s not a lounge at the pool for three days,” observed Council member Brian Peterson, who said he hopes to focus on the concrete things Portland is doing, including its handling of parks, transportation and economic development. Besides the arranged agenda, Peterson said he hopes to set up one-on-one discussions with city staffers who deal with planning-and-zoning and parks-and-recreation issues.
A grant from the WNC-based Beattie Foundation, funneled through the Chamber, is paying $1,500 in travel expenses for each elected official. Everyone else, including City Manager Jim Westbrook, pays his own way. Sponsorships by local businesses such as Fugazy Travel, Biltmore Farms and Carolina Power & Light helps keep expenses low by covering meal costs, notes Copeland.
All told, 55 people planned to make the trip, including Buncombe County Commissioners Nathan Ramsey, David Gant and Patsy Keever, plus Chamber board members and representatives from WNC businesses, nonprofits and schools.
Two City Council members opted to skip the Portland trip in favor of visits to other cities: Charleston (Carl Mumpower) and Greensboro (Joe Dunn).
Mumpower said he plans to shadow Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and visit the city’s civic center. And though he called the Oregon trip a “well intended” and valuable one, Mumpower admitted to some “hesitancies” and “philosophical disagreements” about using Portland as a model for Asheville, saying he would rather “see us create an Asheville model than duplicate another model.”
Dunn also sounded doubtful about Portland’s methods, including growth planning and increased density. Citing a presentation he’d attended at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh following the 2001 elections, Dunn mentioned the negative results of some of Portland’s policies, including higher property values and pollution. Those concerns, he said, influenced his decision not to go.
“Enough people were going to Portland,” said Dunn, adding that he has a “fundamental problem” with patterning Asheville after a West Coast city.
In Greensboro, Dunn plans to talk about the civic center and share notes with that city’s Economic Development Commission. Asheville’s City Council, unable to reach consensus on what to do about its own aging civic center, has agreed to discuss the subject once a month in a work session.
Both Mumpower and Dunn had other trips in the works but changed their plans so they could hand-deliver recently passed budget resolutions to the governor and legislators in Raleigh.
Council members passed the resolutions — one each to the state Senate, House of Representatives and Gov. Mike Easley — during the Sept. 10 formal session. Identical except for their intended recipients, these missives ask the state to: make up its mind ASAP about tax options for municipalities, return the funds seized last year, or at least throw Asheville some other financial bone to help relieve the city’s current budget woes.
Meanwhile, speaking about the Portland trip, Dunn said, “I always wonder if they are going to get both sides.”
Council member Jim Ellis had a different take on it, noting that officials from other cities have come to Asheville for the same reason.
“It’s always good to be a copycat and do the things that have worked well” elsewhere, asserted Ellis, adding, “Nobody has the answers to everything.”
And Copeland noted that seeing the bad and the good is all part of the process. “Even programs that have not worked teach us a lot,” she said.