The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners convened at the Crest Center in Leicester on Oct. 4 to wrap up their unfinished Sept. 27 formal session and hold a lengthy retreat. The board had its January retreat in the same place, and both times the acoustics and visibility were wretched and the temperature apparently unregulatable, leaving more than one participant wondering aloud about the choice of venue. County Manager Wanda Greene told Xpress that she likes the location because it’s relatively nearby but far enough from town to discourage staffers from coming and going.
A team representing the nonprofit Institute at Biltmore got the formal session going with a presentation on the group’s Hub Project, which proponents say could re-energize economic development in the region. Making the pitch were local developer Jack Cecil (secretary/treasurer of the institute’s board of directors), staffer Dan Ray, Ingles Markets Vice President Gordon Myers and real-estate investor Mack Pearsall. Greene, Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey, Commissioner David Young and A-B Tech President K. Ray Bailey are also members of the Hub Project working group, which held its first meeting last January. None of these connections were mentioned in the meeting, however.
Pearsall led off, saying the group had searched for a global economic strategy for Western North Carolina, looking for “untouchable jobs” that aren’t likely to move away in the future. In the process, he said, they “reviewed 65 projects and spent 29 hours trying to knit together the threads.”
Cecil followed up, outlining the group’s “strategic vision statement”: “To build communitywide collaborations that would bring about synergy capable of harnessing public, private and nonprofit-sector support to further implementation.”
The presenters proceeded to fill in a smattering of details about the plan, outlining six “development clusters”: “creative,” “rejuvenation” (i.e. health-related), “technology,” “manufacturing,” “marketing” and “enterprise,” plus 17 strategic goals.
Ray then expanded on the cluster idea with a series of graphics depicting elements of the local cultural, educational, health and business community as interlocking puzzle pieces. He touted the broadband network, the National Climatic Data Center, digital media, technical collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and the possibility of building a weather museum as local strengths that could be tapped to further the Hub idea. Entrepreneurship is important, said Ray, but right now it is catered to by “12 organizations that are not well coordinated.”
He also spoke about the importance of brands, noting, “Asheville is the strongest brand we have; Asheville is regarded as a regional brand.” The question, said Ray, is “How do we develop it? How do we build the Asheville brand as an international identity for our people, culture, products and services?” Other brands, he asserted, have been stolen from us: the Blue Ridge by Virginia and the Smoky Mountains by Tennessee.
The region, said Ray, can build on its history as a healing center and “build a niche in integrative medicine and … destination health care (in which people schedule surgery and vacations together). He also called for reinforcing WNC’s status as a crafts center by “developing the ability to produce handmade objects in multiples and … investing in a design center downtown to make this the national marketplace for handmade objects.”
In sum, the group wants to create a 35-member economic-development authority with performance targets that would be monitored by the Asheville Metro Business Research Center. The authority, said Pearsall, will “need someone who is responsible every day for knitting together all the parts of the project.”
The Chamber, noted Young, is already trying to raise $3.5 million to fund economic development; he wondered how Ray would implement the Hub idea without stymieing that fund-raising campaign.
“We have the perfect opportunity to mesh that with this project — to adopt the Hub plan and make it the public/private partnership moving forward. Public funding should lead the way in making that happen,” Ray quickly answered.
Commissioner Bill Stanley and Vice Chairman David Gantt both voiced concern about crafters being excluded from the Hub project. Ray replied: “The [Southern Highland Craft Guild] didn’t participate directly in this. There may be a long educational process in front of us, letting the public know what is up.”
Chairman Nathan Ramsey asked, “What’s this going to cost the county, the community?”
Ray answered, “The cost you’re already spending — but just redirecting to the Hub strategic plan.”
And when Ramsey observed that the county currently funds AdvantageWest and it appeared that Hub would need money for a new director, Ray repeated, “There is already enough being spent.”
Gantt reiterated his concern about the lack of artists on the proposed board, receiving assurances that there would be opportunities for them to get involved.
The commissioners then adopted the Hub Project’s 17 strategic goals and instructed the county manager to take whatever steps are necessary to move forward. Greene said it would take two to three months to come up with an implementation plan.
After the vote, however, Gantt spoke up again: “I’m still bothered that the arts community doesn’t have a designated seat there. For instance, when the city did its Civic Center plan, it excluded the Guild.” He then queried Ray, “The city’s kind of gone their own way on economic development; are they going to get involved with this?”
“We’ll be presenting to their work session soon, and we’d hope that the city and county could work on a joint plan,” Ray replied.
In a related presentation later in the afternoon, A-B Tech President Bailey said, “There’s a thread through the whole Hub Project that runs through the campus on Victoria Road and the Enka campus.”
The commissioners then unanimously approved amendments to procedural rules that had been discussed during the Sept. 27 portion of the meeting. The change adds a second public-comment period to one board meeting per month to bring the county into compliance with state law. The formal session was then adjourned, and the commissioners moved directly into their retreat agenda.
To their health
The county has initiated diverse employee-wellness programs during the past three years. Personnel Director Rob Thornberry reported that the effort is paying off in both employee health and dollars. An employee clinic at the Health Department begun in July 2003 was expanded in January 2004 to include children and families. “The clinic costs the county substantially less than if they go to a doctor. It is also convenient, which means less time off work,” noted Thornberry. “Altogether there have been almost 4,000 visits that didn’t go to a primary-care clinic. … Now we have expanded to retirees who are still on the county health plan.”
Other programs include free screening for breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, cholesterol and blood pressure; a health-club reimbursement program for employees diagnosed with life-threatening medical problems; classes in stopping smoking; and a lunchtime Weight Watchers program. “In one year with the program, the employees lost 2,000 pounds,” he said, “and we’re getting people off blood-pressure meds.” The county has 247 people in what he called an aggressive asthma treatment program and has established special programs for pregnancy, diabetes and congestive heart failure.
Possible future plans, added Thornberry, include free dermatological scans for employees (“If we could send people in for body scan once per year, we could save a lot,” he noted) and free colon scans for older employees (“We could save on a whopping big bill”).
Thornberry also reported on the Smoke-Free Campuses initiative. “The next target is the steps of the courthouse. Do you want us to proceed with moving those folks off the steps?”
The commissioners assented but instructed Thornberry to build a rain shelter over the designated smoking area.
Flood relief and preparedness
The commissioners heard from Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun concerning state funds for clearing storm debris from local rivers and for buyouts of property in the floodway. Buildings purchased will be demolished and the property used for greenways or parks.
In a related matter, the county’s Crisis Housing Assistance Fund will indemnify qualified resident owners whose losses weren’t covered by flood insurance. To date, 40 structures have been condemned, and renters who lost housing in last year’s floods were referred to the Affordable Housing Coalition, reported Planner Cynthia Barcklow.
Director Gary Higgins, director of the Soil and Water Conservation District, reported on the Emergency Watershed Protection Program. These days, he said,100- to 300-year storms are happening about every 25 years. (Such storms are defined by the amount of rain falling within a set time frame compared with historical data, not their actual frequency.) Higgins said his office has identified about 230 sites in the county needing repair in the wake of the September 2004 floods. The county has collected $5.9 million in state and federal funding, he said, and all work will be finished by the Dec. 15 deadline.
Planning Director Jon Creighton talked about the Asheville-Buncombe Flood Reduction Task Force, and his staff discussed various changes in development rules that would help protect new structures from storm runoff.
Digitization rolls on
In a report that touched on both development and flood planning, GIS Coordinator Janet Lowe described progress in GIS (geographic information systems) mapping that permits interlinking with databases. The new maps will enable users to click on a parcel and get full information about it.
Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes gave an overview of the county’s communication efforts, including improvements in the county Web site, the employee intranet site, the weekly e-Zine, an upcoming print guide to Buncombe government, and an in-house print shop that’s saving tens of thousands of dollars in print and copying costs.
Sure to win the 2006 “good news/bad news” award, Tax Collector Gary Roberts outlined details of the upcoming revaluation. Property values have risen dramatically since the last valuation. Refined analysis has allowed his staff to more accurately categorize the county’s 40,000 manufactured homes, which used to be classified as “average” but are now sorted into “good, better, best.” Leasehold improvements are also being valued more accurately. And while some floodplain property will decline in value, most property values have increased by 19 percent to 54 percent since 2002, said Roberts.
Build it and they will come
Despite rain delays, construction of the new detention facility is still on track for the February 2007 completion target, Jail Administrator Bill Stafford reported. Although the current jail is operating substantially above capacity, Stafford said he’s informed the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other interested parties that double-bunking has ensured that all inmates have mattresses, sheets and blankets.
Creighton outlined other upcoming projects, including a new emergency-operations center, a $2.4 million animal shelter and a $275,000 administration building for solid-waste management.
The latter department has begun construction of the largest cell at the landfill, a $7.3 million project, and a new bioreactor should be operating within a month, General Services Director Bob Hunter reported. The bioreactor will pump leachate back into the landfill to speed garbage breakdown, adding another 12-20 years to the site’s 35-year design life. “As soon as we add water to it, it will generate gas on a large scale,” he said. “We are working on marketing the gas through Public Service.” Biodiesel fuel, now used by all landfill equipment, is cheaper than diesel fuel in the wake of this summer’s price increases, noted Hunter.
Finance Director Donna Clark reported that the AAA bonds financing the construction entail 2 percent short-term interest (4 percent long-term). General-fund debt service, she noted, will increase to $15.9 million next year and then stay there for four years. The county, said Clark, ALSO plans to borrow $28 million for school projects. Bids are expected to come in a little higher than originally estimated, she said, and because the projects are ambitious, there might not be enough contractors and subcontractors available to do all the work at once.
In another financial matter, Creighton said his staff has been examining the county’s economic-development incentive policy, comparing it with Charlotte/Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth and Wake counties. Other counties tend to specify the number of new jobs that must be created in order to qualify for incentive packages, whereas Buncombe does not.
Creighton also gingerly approached a perennial hot potato: land-use planning. The county Planning Board, he said, wants new direction from the commissioners before moving forward with new ideas.
“The biggest challenge we have is the JPA [joint-planning area with the city of Asheville],” said Ramsey. “Are we going to do it? Are we not going to do it?”
City involvement, answered Creighton, is on hold until after the upcoming Council election, “just as it was with you last fall,” and there will be a new group to deal with next month. He repeated his request for direction from the board concerning land-use planning.
That prompted Jim Coman (whose title is “zoning administrator” even though the county has no zoning) to observe, “The one tool planners need but haven’t been given is zoning.”
And at that, all five commissioners assured Creighton and Coman that everything is on the table — raising the possibility that the zoning battle may be heating up yet again.