Asheville City Council

The Asheville Civic Center got a lot of attention at City Council’s mammoth seven-hour Sept. 20 work session, whether the topic was hurricane preparedness and relief or a proposal for a performing-arts center. But as has happened so often in the past, there was little sign of progress.

In a special report spurred by the problems with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government entities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Fire Chief Greg Grayson gave an overview of local emergency preparedness. Detailing the local, state and federal emergency command structure as well as the responsibilities of each level of government, he explained that all emergency agencies operate under the National Incident Management System, which outlines the provision of services, command and control, and unification of all participating agencies.

“The city manager keeps all elected officials apprised of emergency situations and obtains policy direction from elected officials when necessary,” Grayson explained.

Council member Joe Dunn inquired whether there is an evacuation plan for Asheville in the event of a catastrophe. Grayson deferred to Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun, who said: “Plans were first developed about 15 years ago — during the Cold War, when Asheville was identified as a possible target city — for evacuation of 90,000 people. They haven’t been examined for a long time. We do have community evacuation plans, including people who don’t have transportation. The only situation in which we might have to evacuate the whole city would be radiation.”

Council member Terry Bellamy asked, “Do we have a communications plan, such as a reverse 911 system, to communicate with people about emergencies?”

VeHaun said there is neither a system nor a plan for one, adding, “You still have to go door to door.”

Grayson concurred, saying, “We find that face to face, door to door is the best way to notify people.”

Moving from response to relief, Civic Center Director David Pisha reported that within a week after Katrina, he’d had three requests from groups wanting to schedule fund-raisers at the facility. “We have told them that our policy is to require charitable groups to pay the normal fee structure at the Civic Center,” said Pisha.

City Manager Gary Jackson listed three possibilities for dealing with such situations: “One is keep with existing policy, two is to waive direct costs only, and three, to waive all costs.” Jackson also stressed the need to ascertain that such charities are reputable.

After a general discussion of the options, Council member Holly Jones summed up the majority view, saying: “I think there are better ways to use city resources than to dance around with how to use the Civic Center. I don’t need to see anything more about this.”

But both Bellamy and Council member Brownie Newman expressed interest in hearing more about the groups in question, and Jackson asked Pisha to give Council additional information.

Another Civic Center vision

Next up was a proposal from the nonprofit Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts to completely gut and reconfigure the Civic Center as a dedicated performing-arts space. Board President Sidney Powell presented dazzling artist’s renderings and architectural drawings of a possible future for the troubled facility. The ambitious plan envisions: restoring the original flat floor in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium to make it a multipurpose space; suspending a new theater within the existing arena to create a high-ceilinged facility that could handle the massive sets common to many traveling shows; creating a black-box/TV theater in the downstairs exhibition area; installing a chamber music/lecture hall in the current banquet room; expanding facilities for performers, such as dressing rooms and green rooms; providing new offices for staff; and giving the entry and lobby areas a face-lift.

Consultants Westlake Reed Leskosky, Powell reported, have determined that adaptive reuse of the Civic Center is the most cost-effective way to create a performing-arts space in Asheville. The estimated cost would be $50 million, she said, noting, “Westlake hired one of the No. 1 number-crunching companies in the country to estimate these costs.” The nonprofit’s proposal calls for a public/private partnership involving city, county, state and possibly federal money as well as private donations. The newly formed nonprofit group, which hired the consultants, has already raised more than $200,000, she reported.

Dunn expressed doubts about the estimates’ accuracy. In his work with the Airport Authority, he said, costs invariably run 40 percent above estimates.

Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower applauded the plan but went on to voice repeated reservations about the cost. He also said the architect of the current arena had told him it was built like a fortress and couldn’t be successfully remodeled.

Powell countered that Westlake had sent an engineering team into the building and was sure the proposal would work. And Battle Haslam, vice president of the nonprofit’s board, added that the firm had worked from the original Civic Center blueprints.

Mayor Charles Worley asked for a recap of the numbers, and Powell said Westlake’s estimate for a stand-alone performing-arts center runs to $100 million or more — twice the ballpark figure for a revamped Civic Center. “If the city would put in the money they would otherwise spend to fix the existing [Civic] Center, we can raise the rest of the funds,” added Powell.

Council member Jan Davis asked what would replace the arena, and Powell said that others had looked at state funding for an arena in the River District.

“How much demand would there be for a stand-alone facility?” queried Newman. “We don’t have sports teams. Basically it is the gun shows, the craft shows and so forth.”

But Davis pointed out: “There are a number of things that happen at a civic center that are successful. We keep losing the opportunity to have big events, with top-of-the-line entertainers. How many concerts, shows, plays is there a market for? How much is this community willing to support?”

That prompted Mumpower to ask Pisha, “Do we need an arena?”

“About two-thirds of our revenue comes out of the arena, but there is more diversity in the theater,” said Pisha.

Jones then cut to the chase, stating: “We need to have a discussion about the trade-offs. If our conversation is always about money, we will stalemate. I think we need to have the first part of the conversation.”

And Bellamy chimed in: “We have never discussed, as a Council, what we want for the Civic Center. We need to have a discussion about what we really want for the community.”

But Worley countered: “First we need commitments from funding sources. Then we need to collaborate on the process.”

At that point, Haslam leaped up, insisting: “The first thing is not commitment from the funding sources, it is commitment in principle from you that this is what you want to do. We’ve got to know that you guys think this is a reasonable plan before we can take this to the funding sources. We can’t come up with hard numbers until we know what we are going for.”

Mumpower repeated his concerns about funding, and Haslam grew visibly impatient. “If you tell us that you don’t like the idea, then we go back in our cages. If you agree in principle, it will be worth it to spend our money to go ahead with our studies.”

Stepping away from the bickering, Newman noted: “We may not do this project, but we have to do something. We need to spend the next several months looking at this option and looking at other options.”

In the end, Council finally decided to schedule a special work session on Tuesday, Oct. 4, to discuss plans for the Civic Center, but not before Jones interjected: “I think this needs to be asked: Do we want to have this conversation six weeks before an election? There will be different players here afer that.”

That prompted Dunn to proclaim, “I think we need to show some leadership, and we are right now.”

At 5:40 p.m., the meeting went into closed session to discuss legal matters and reconvened shortly after 7 p.m.

Pushing the growth buttons

Five years ago, Council created a Sustainable Economic Development Strategic Plan Implementation Task Force chaired by local developer Jack Cecil, who recruited other movers and shakers as members. Real-estate developer and current task-force Chair Chuck Tessier reported on the group’s activities. “I represent a very dedicated group of business and community leaders who have worked over a period of five years to ensure the sustainability of success,” he said, citing a number of achievements he attributed to the group’s efforts.

Mumpower responded: “In four years on Council, I can’t recall a time that you have been directly involved with us. Are there ways we can strengthen your involvement?”

Tessier replied: “We have stressed a much stronger communication with Council. We want to become a much more active tool for you to use.”

Bellamy said, “I’d like to hear from you more often — about jobs, economic issues — more consistent reports.”

Tessier stated, “Our activity works [at the] staff level.”

City Attorney Bob Oast said he would draft an ordinance making the task force a formal commission. But Newman pointed out that if it became an official body, Council would need to approve its members.

Wire we quibbling?

Back in July, Council rejected a bid by the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network to provide subscription-based high-speed-wireless Internet service citywide, with reduced or waived fees for some city facilities, in exchange for free antenna space on a city-owned tower. And at the Sept. 13 formal session, Davis, Dunn and Mumpower proposed that Asheville itself provide such service citywide. On Sept. 20, Davis presented their plan, dubbed the Wireless Internet Network Service (WINS), highlighting the benefits of high-speed-wireless access for city workers such as police and building inspectors, as an economic-development tool, and as a service to city residents. The proposal called for staff to report back within 30-60 days on the feasibility and cost of such a system.

“If this is looking at all options, no one can argue against that,” said Newman. “But if it is closing some doors and opening others, that would be sending a signal that we aren’t interested in partnering.”

Mumpower rejoined, “We wanted to push this, to get some weight behind it and give it a strong nudge.” Speaking at length about the nuances of various systems, he ended by noting that Intel Corp. is eager to partner with cities. But then he added: “I want to be very cautious of partnering with a political entity. I have the same concerns today as I did before: MAIN is a political entity.”

Jones then spoke up: “If all the jargon is coming from a goodhearted place — we had a chance to do all of this six weeks ago. If we had heard all of this stuff, we would have voted differently six weeks ago.”

And Newman noted: “The models mentioned here are very different. Winston-Salem is a single, downtown hot spot. Philadelphia is a fully developed, citywide system that cost millions of dollars. These are several different initiatives mentioned here.”

Information Technologies Director Jonathan Feldman then gave a staff report saying, in effect, that they were waiting for marching orders. In response, Worley said: “I think we want staff to develop the options. If we don’t provide it for the whole city, it is useless to the Police Department and other city departments.”

Mumpower concurred. “I think our interest is to think citywide,” he said. “Citizen access is a benefit, particularly WiMax [a more advanced wireless technology that’s just coming into use]. And Intel is offering an opportunity that very few are walking through.”

Jones, however, didn’t seem to like what she was hearing. “Are we saying if we can’t have it all, we don’t want any of the pieces?” she queried. “Carl, earlier today you stressed realism — dealing with what we already have. This Council is great at smearing the ambitions of the community because they are too high.”

Mumpower: “I don’t know if you’re interested in defending MAIN or in exploring possibilities.”

Jones: “But what if you could get it now, for free, instead of using tax dollars later?”

Davis: “You’re sounding political.”

Jones: “I’m elected to be political.”

Worley: “I think we need to decide what to do.”

Bellamy: “The Asheville Police have wireless within their building. How does that fit?” She added, “What they have done in Gastonia looks like a model for what we can do here. They started out small.”

Returning to the question of funding, Jones said: “I’ll want to see the numbers as well. What are the investments, the risks, the long-term costs?”

Feldman answered, “You need to ask if the technology will work for the duration of the payback period, so keeping the payback period as conservative as possible is essential.”

Then Jones added, nodding toward a BellSouth representative in the chamber: “I would also like to see the legal ramifications. What are the possibilities of BellSouth suing us?”

At that point, Oast gestured to Patsy Bryson, the attorney for Greenlife Grocery, and the two of them exited the meeting together, returning somewhat later in the proceedings. Bryson was present because the final item on the evening’s agenda concerned a possible legal dispute about Greenlife’s building permits.

Staples and (red) tape

The Staples office-supply store now under construction on Merrimon Avenue has sparked widespread criticism. The side of the building facing Merrimon presents a towering, sheer surface soaring nearly 60 feet from the sidewalk, with no doors or windows at street level. The subject has come up in letters to the editor, on radio talk shows and in at least one forum for mayoral candidates, generally addressing the same question: How was such an eyesore approved?

Planning Director Scott Shuford told Council members that the building is in compliance, and if Council wants to avoid having more such structures, the law will have to be changed. “We are looking at a revised definition of height as part of the ridge-top/steep-slope/open-space ordinance,” he said.

“We have been concerned for some time about how height is measured in our community,” Shuford explained. “Height in the near-downtown district is limited to 40 feet from the level at which emergency services enter the building to the top. The height of the Staples building is measured from the top of the retaining wall.”

He concluded: “We are finding increasing areas where taller buildings are going in on hillside lots. We feel that needs to be addressed. We’d like to get to the situation where we have a more standard measurement of height. This situation is not likely to be repeated in other areas, but it could be.”

Stretching the city

Transit and Parking Services Director Bruce Black reported on his department’s daylong Aug. 24 retreat. “Growth of demand is greater than growth of population,” he said, “and we’re working hard to get the incremental passengers on board. … Ridership is up significantly due to gasoline prices. We’ve never had that increase before connected to gas prices. We have passed some kind of threshold where transit is more attractive.”

Black also noted that some government services, such as the Social Security office, are moving to the edge of town, which “begins to stretch us out.” Affordable housing, too, is moving out of downtown. “We need to think outside the bus and look at the whole system more broadly,” he urged. “We’re looking at major employers and where their employees live.”

In addition, Black stated: “We feel we really have to get aggressive about ridesharing. During the Katrina gas shortage, we went from 71 hits per day on the Share the Ride Web site to over 240 per day.” He concluded by noting that his department wants to give Council a more comprehensive report in October or November.

Mumpower then launched an extended question-and-answer exchange with Black about bus shelters and benches, shelter-design options and historic Asheville shelters the vice mayor recalled from the 1950s.

Newman followed Black’s presentation with a quick overview of city-owned property. The Housing and Community Development Committee, he explained, has been looking at affordable housing and specifically community land trusts. “One place we’ve looked at is the ABC property [at Broadway and Cherry Street]. But we also wanted to look at property that we already own. Perhaps what we are using them for is not highest and best use, and … we could look at them for mixed use, with a particular eye to affordable housing.”

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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