Buzzworm news briefs

Naming no names

The mystery Web site lives on, and a lengthy media appearance by its sponsor hasn’t offered many clues as to its origins.

The site — www.ncipprg.com — purports to provide “expert evaluation” of the effectiveness of North Carolina’s state legislators as prepared by the little-known North Carolina Independent Public Policy Research Group. Local Democrats say they smell a campaign-season rat for several reasons: The site was posted by George Keller, chairman of the Buncombe County Republican Party; it provides effectiveness rankings that place two local Democrats near the very bottom; and the name of the purported research group is strikingly similar to that of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, a long-established, nonpartisan think tank based in Raleigh that issues biennial legislator-effectiveness ratings.

Keller has insisted that his only role in posting the information was that of “paid Webmaster,” and that the GOP is in no way involved in the site (see “Web of Deceit?” Sept. 25 Xpress). He put up the site for “$50 plus expenses,” he says, for former state Rep. Mark Crawford. (Rep. Bruce Goforth, who defeated Crawford in a 2002 election, was among the Democrats judged most-ineffective by the Web site).

The Web site doesn’t name any individuals as authors, nor does it provide contact information for the NCIPPRG — a “research group” that has made no corporate filing with the state and appears to have only a skeletal presence on the Web. So, just who or what is the group?

Early last week, Crawford told Xpress he was not at liberty to offer details about the group. “I will be trying to contact people with the NCIPPRG to see if I can get some information released from them,” he said. “That’s got to be up to them.”

Then, on Friday, Sept. 22, Crawford appeared as a live guest on the WWNC 570 talk show, “Take a Stand! with Matt Mittan,” to answer questions about the group (some questions, that is).

Asked by Mittan to describe the NCIPPRG, Crawford said he had been in contact members of with the group, who had denied him permission to reveal their names. He did say that the group had four members; two live in North Carolina, he said, and the others live in South Carolina and Tennessee. “I don’t know if they are hired, paid, whatever,” Crawford added. “My understanding is these associates are volunteers in the work they do. They have no driven agenda that I am aware of.”

Mittan asked again: “Let me be crystal clear, you’re not going to tell us who they are?”

“No,” Crawford responded, prompting Mittan to comment that “it’s very convenient when someone calls themselves a public-policy research group to not reveal who they are when the integrity of that research is called into question.”

— Cecil Bothwell

Is there a doctor in the house?

With Congress declining to provide universal health care and businesses increasingly unwilling or unable to provide health insurance, it may fall to individual states to pick up the slack. Already, Vermont and Massachusetts have mandated some form of universal health coverage for their residents.

But if a recent candidates’ forum on health care is any indication, North Carolina residents shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for a similar move by state lawmakers.

At the Sept. 18 event, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County, however, various speakers focused on less-ambitious measures. More than 80 people gathered at the Jewish Community Center to listen as nine candidates gave one-minute answers to a handful of questions. Despite the strict time limits, the remarks enabled audience members to get a sense of where the speakers stand on health care.

State Sen. Martin Nesbitt (District 49) touted the state’s Health Choice program and the Buncombe County Medical Society’s Project Access, which respectively serve children and the poor. “I would raise cigarette taxes” as a way to expand access to health care and reduce state Medicaid costs, he said. “If you’re going to [impact] your health by smoking, you should help pay some of the costs.”

Republicans said reducing taxes and enacting tort reform are crucial. Former state Sen. R.L. Clark, who’s challenging Nesbitt, targeted burdensome governmental rules and regulations, saying, “I’m firmly convinced that the more government involvement, the more complex the problem becomes.” Many Republican challengers argued that government mandated coverage is the wrong approach.

“Catastrophic coverage is one thing, but the state shouldn’t have to pay for minor stuff like an ingrown toenail or an inflamed tooth,” said Michael Harrison (who’s opposing District 114 Rep. Susan Fisher, a Democrat).

Legislation allowing small businesses to join forces to create a larger insurance pool would drive down costs and expand coverage, said Charles Thomas, who’s battling Democrat Doug Jones for the District 116 seat being vacated by Rep. Wilma Sherrill. “It’s simple legislation that doesn’t cost you or affect your taxes.” Fisher said the state should also create a high-risk pool to cut costs for people with pre-existing conditions.

But everyone agreed that the state’s mental-health reform has failed to varying degrees and needs immediate attention. “Not paying for this now will certainly cost us later,” said Thomas.

“You can be sure [mental health] will be one of my top priorities,” promised Fisher, as she and others highlighted the planned closure of New Horizons-Mountain Vistas, a local nonprofit mental-health organization serving 10,500 people in Buncombe and several surrounding counties.

Other speakers included District 115 Rep. Bruce Goforth and his Republican challenger Eric Gorny.

As for action at the federal level, Democrat Heath Shuler, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, told the audience not to expect massive change. (Taylor did not attend the forum.) Simple measures, such as using automated health-information systems to reduce physicians’ massive paperwork burden, might eliminate some jobs but would drive down health costs, said Shuler, noting, “Some doctors have as much as 15 people working on paperwork.” The whole country — including government, the health industry and consumers — needs to focus on prevention and disease management, he added.

“There is no one step to universal care; I wish that there was,” said Shuler.

— Hal Millard

Dusting off the ledger books

It’s a popular grouse that you can’t buy a sack of nails or a can of paint in downtown Asheville, but, sure enough, you can drive away from the place with a carload of useless art.

A new exhibit lends the weight of history to that claim, illuminating the city’s mercantile past and one community’s vitally important contribution to it.

Called The Family Store: A History of Jewish Businesses in Downtown Asheville, 1880-1990, the exhibit will feature guided and self-guided walking tours of downtown and includes a Sunday, Oct. 8, presentation at Pack Memorial Library by researchers Jan Schochet and Sharon Fahrer.

Jews have stood elbow to elbow with the city’s Anglo and African-American residents at least since the latter part of the 19th century, when the names of brothers-in-law Solomon Lipinsky and Solomon Whitlock appeared in the Buncombe County census. Shortly after their arrival, the two men opened a dry goods store, which, over a period of years, hopscotched to various locations on S. Main Street (today’s Biltmore Avenue) and finally, under the name Bon Marche, came to rest along Haywood Street, where the Haywood Park Hotel now stands.

But Lipinsky and Whitlock, cornerstones that they were, were only the vanguard of a Jewish migration to Asheville, says Fahrer. Between 1880 and 1990, this modest-sized Southern city was home to more than 400 Jewish-owned businesses. “These people made a contribution to the development of Asheville that was out of proportion to their numbers,” she notes. In the first decades of the 20th century, inspired by the slogan, “Go west with success,” Jewish business owners moved their establishments westward from Main Street toward Haywood Street.

“Haywood Street, I like to say, was the Fifth Avenue of Asheville,” Fahrer observes.

To chronicle downtown business life, she and Schochet first interviewed 40 community members, including descendants of those first storeowners.

The ascendancy of the shopping mall and big-box store may have been a shot to the heart for downtown-business life, but Asheville’s Jewish community — with two synagogues, a community center and a day school — remains one of the most active of any small city in the United States today.

Still, Fahrer maintains that “The Family Store” has relevance not only for people with ties to Zion but for anyone with an interest in the history of place.

“It’s telling the story of downtown. It’s not about Jewish history, necessarily — it’s about Asheville history, regional history, North Carolina history, our history as Americans.”

For information on guided tours, e-mail historyathand@charter.net, or call Fahrer at 777-1014. To learn more about the Oct. 8 program at Pack Library, call 250-4700.

— Kent Priestley

Room to think

It seemed like a natural.

With the state Department of Transportation expected to invest millions of dollars in the design and construction of the I-26 Connector in Asheville, it created an opportunity of near-epic proportions.

So since January, a group of local architects has been brainstorming ideas, first focusing on a grant application titled “Bridging the French Broad: Creating Connected and Livable Communities.” That netted the group a $15,000 award from the American Institute of Architects in April, one of only 12 handed out nationwide in celebration of the AIA’s 150th anniversary.

Armed with that grant — and more brainstorming — the local group is launching the Asheville Design Center at 8 College St. (across from Pritchard Park) on Friday, Sept. 29. Architect Jacquelyn Schauer, the president of Asheville AIA, is excited about the possibilities.

Guided by the national organization’s “Blueprint for America’s Ten Principles for Livable Communities,” the local chapter wanted to bring together such concepts as human-scale design, conservation of landscapes, creating neighborhoods with identity and preserving urban centers. But as Schauer described the process, it was the last of the 10 principles — “Design Matters” — that became something of a motto for the group.

“We realized there’s a lot of land” involved in the I-26 project, and “I got real excited about land use,” Schauer explained. “If we could get the road system and bridges designed right,” it would provide opportunities for creating a well-designed urban complement to downtown Asheville, using the Blueprint ideas of community engagement, collaborative process and quality design.

“Architects are trained to understand what good design is and to be able to envision things which are not now, but could be,” Schauer mused. So why not design a way to share that inspiration with the community?

Well aware of the I-26 Connector project’s complex history, the AIA’s core group expanded to include local planners, landscape designers and others. The group has also invited guests representing other stakeholders to the weekly meetings.

And now, it’s time to take the process public. Besides historical materials and maps, the Design Center’s opening will feature interactive materials encouraging people to contribute thoughts and questions. A three-dimensional model of the I-26 area, illustrating the river’s topography and urban edges, will enable users to try out design possibilities. Created by the UNC-Charlotte School of Architecture, the 6-by-8 foam model is based on GIS information.

For Schauer, however, this is only the beginning. Groups can use the center for planning or design projects, and if enough volunteers can be mustered, it will be open a few hours each day for the public to wander in and study the materials and models.

The hope, said Schauer, is to “get people thinking and excited” and to help them understand that there are lots of possibilities — for I-26 and beyond. Because after “Bridging the French Broad,” Schauer hopes the center will become a self-sustaining resource for the whole community, playing an ongoing role in the service of good local design.

The Asheville Design Center opening takes place Friday, Sept. 29, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at 8 College St. Mayor Terry Bellamy will cut the ribbon at 5:45 p.m. For more information about the center and its activities, go to www.ashevilledesigncenter.org.

— Nelda Holder

Campaign calendar

Wed, Sept. 27: A fund-raising reception for Van Duncan, Democratic candidate for Buncombe County sheriff, will be held at 300 Webb Cove Road from 5:30 to 7 p.m. For details and reservations, e-mail vanduncan@vanduncan.com or call 254-8100.

Thu, Oct. 5: Van Duncan, candidate for sheriff, is holding a community meeting at the Weaverville Town Hall at 7 p.m.

Fri, Oct. 6: The 2006 Nonpartisan Judicial Voter Guide will be mailed to all residential addresses between Oct. 5 and Oct. 16 to support the beginning of one-stop voting on Oct. 19. The guide, published by the State Board of Elections, covers all the state’s judicial candidates.

Fri, Oct. 13: Last day to register to be eligible to vote on Nov. 7; also, last day to change party status before the general election. For more information, contact your local board of elections (in Buncombe County, call 250-4200).

Mon, Oct. 16: The League of Women Voters will hold a public forum for candidates for N.C. Senate District 48 and N.C. House districts 114, 115 and 116 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Randolph Learning Center in Asheville’s Montford neighborhood.

Wed, Oct. 18: The public is invited to witness the testing of Buncombe County’s new voting machines by the Board of Elections. The testing takes place on the fifth floor of the Allport Building, 44 Valley St., at 5:30 p.m. (enter through the Valley Street entrance of the Purchasing Department). For more information, call the BOE at 250-4200.

Wed, Oct. 18: The two candidates for Buncombe County sheriff, incumbent Bobby Medford and challenger Van Duncan, will be the guests at the 11:30 a.m. Asheville Leadership Forum. The event takes place at the Country Club of Asheville and is open to the public. Reservations are required; contact Terry Wooten at woot683@bellsouth.net or 683-0910. There is a $16 fee (which covers lunch) — and no jeans, please.

Thu, Oct. 19: One-stop voting begins at 10 locations around Buncombe County. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday (exception: the Buncombe County Training Center opens at 8:30 a.m.). The last day for early voting is Saturday, Nov. 4, ending at 1 p.m. Locations are as follows:

Buncombe County Training Center, 199 College St., Asheville

Black Mountain Library, 105 N. Dougherty St., Black Mountain

Enka/Candler Library, 1404 Sandhill Road, Candler

Fairview Library, 1 Taylor Road, Fairview

Leicester Library, 1561 Alexander Road, Leicester

South Buncombe Library, 260 Overlook Road, Asheville

Weaverville Library, 41 N. Main St., Weaverville

North Asheville Library, 1030 Merrimon Ave., Asheville

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