“What we need is clean, high-tech industry.”
This has been city economic-development officials’ battle cry for several years now. But between the recent economic downturn and the stiff competition from other cities, luring such companies to the area has proved to be a challenge.
At its Oct. 8 formal session, however, the Asheville City Council took a firm step toward bolstering the city’s economic base by honoring a request from AvL Technologies, a manufacturer of mobile satellite antennae systems. Admittedly, the company isn’t exactly new to the area. In fact, they’re mountain-grown — a local enterprise nurtured by A-B Tech’s small-business-incubator program and now growing at a rapid rate.
But that very success is what brought Jim Oliver, AvL’s owner/president, before Council. His plea was simple: officially shut down an unused thoroughfare behind his manufacturing facility on Roberts Street. Although this particular portion of Old Haywood Road has been closed since the neighboring Haywood Road was widened to four lanes in 1984, the abandoned roadway was still public property. So Oliver and building owner Michael Rice petitioned the city to formally close the street, to clear the way for expanding the structure to accommodate the company’s growth (under city ordinance, the land would then be distributed among the adjacent property owners).
But nothing in Asheville is ever simple.
Oliver’s company happens to be situated in the heart of the River District, a lively, funky neighborhood whose gritty industrial structures are home to a mix of light manufacturing, offices — and studios and galleries featuring some of the region’s most acclaimed artists. Further complicating matters is the fact that the River District is seen by many as an area ripe for redevelopment — including reenway plan, now in the planning stages, and part of which will run through the district. And several artists and residents of the nearby West End/Clingman Avenue neighborhood (a.k.a. WECAN) voiced concerns about closing the road and allowing the building expansion to proceed before the long-promised greenway master plan has been finalized. Opponents of the street closing also noted that the building’s owner hadn’t come forward with a design plan, fueling fears that the new addition might not be compatible with the area.
Lu Heetderks urged Council to hold off on closing the street, noting that a consultant had indicated back in 1998 that the greenway might run near the area in question. “With the city having possession of the street, you’ll still have leverage,” she argued. Heetderks also noted the work her neighborhood has done to help revitalize the area. That message was echoed by Executive Director Scott Dedman of Mountain Housing Opportunities. The nonprofit agency has invested $3 million in properties in the area, said Dedman, urging caution.
These neighborhood representatives prefaced their concerns by noting that they don’t oppose the company’s growth — “We strongly support growth that will bring jobs to Asheville,” declared Dedman — but they want a say in how the area is developed.
AvL, however, also had supporters on hand. Ronnie James of the state Department of Commerce observed: “I don’t see this as a conflict. … This is an incubator success story.” Both James and Carol Hensley of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Commission cited statistics touting the impact of high-paying manufacturing jobs on a city’s economy.
But the evening’s strongest testimony came from AvL’s owner, who gave a brief history of his work with the satellite technology. “I put ESPN and CNN on the air,” Oliver proclaimed proudly, adding, “I love it here in Asheville.” He then pointed to his shirt, emblazoned with the company’s logo (“Avl” is also the city’s airport designation). Oliver continued, “But I’ve got to expand — I sense the dam is about to break.”
Council members listened intently. And when Oliver said that if he couldn’t expand, he might have to relocate the firm — assuring his hearers that this was “not a threat” — the words nonetheless hung in the air, despite their weight. In the end, the seven elected officials voted unanimously to close the street, with an obvious eye toward keeping AvL in Avl.
Water and politics
With the street closing over, Council turned its attention to the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson — specifically, appointing someone to represent the city on the Authority board. Previous Councils have divided their two seats on the board, naming one Council member (Mayor Charles Worley at the moment) and one city resident (Ted Patton, whose term has just expired). Instead of appointing a citizen to replace Patton, however, Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy explained that Council had decided to tap one of their own. That said, they voted unanimously to appoint Council member Brian Peterson to the position.
The change didn’t go unnoticed, though. Hazel Fobes of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air noted: “I’ve been watching the Authority for many years. Accountability … I’m not sure where you’re going with getting Mr. Peterson; you already have the Mayor. Now you’re saying you will have another person on there; that’s not quite fair in this game. … That means you’ll have two people to come to the board; that means that you could have something up your sleeve. … To me, you’re sort of stacking the deck.”
At that, the mayor smiled and shook his head in seeming disbelief. Fobes then went on to question the wisdom of replacing Patton, an engineer by trade, with a politician. “Nothing against Mr. Peterson,” she said, “but Ted Patton was the head of Enka America. Not little old Asheville: Enka America!”
Worley later told Xpress that appointing Peterson wasn’t exactly a policy shift. “It’s just a strong feeling that we wanted to be fully involved and fully up to speed and just have another Council member on the Water Authority,” he said. Asked to comment on the rationale for replacing an engineer with an elected official, Worley responded: “It’s nice to have that technical expertise — and Mr. Patton certainly brought that to the Water Authority. On the other hand, the role of the Authority is not so much in the technical as it is in the policy-making. So yes, we will lose and we will miss that technical expertise, but I think we may gain in terms of more Council involvement in the policy-making aspect of it.”