By 6 p.m. on Oct. 14, the Century Room at Pack’s Tavern bustled with discussion on downtown issues in a candidate forum sponsored by the Asheville Downtown Association. From cleanliness to crime, toplessness to construction, the seven candidates voiced their opinions on key issues affecting Asheville residents and the community at large.
During the first round of questions, Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer addressed whether the city will support growth in the South Slope region of downtown, while former city Risk Management Director John Miall discussed the lack of effort regarding walkability downtown. The two placed first and second, respectively, in the recent mayoral primary, and will vie for the position in the Nov. 5 general election.
“The city has really identified the South Slope as one of the key areas to emerge going forward,” Manheimer said, mentioning how an investment in valuable construction downtown brings in high return, which, she argues, strengthens the downtown economy and “creates a wonderful vibrant downtown, providing jobs and amenities for everyone to enjoy. “The South Slope is an area that is patchy — some places are being highly utilized, some pieces of land are not at all,” she continued. “So in the city’s budget that was adopted last year, you will see budget capital investment in the South Slope of downtown.”
Miall insisted that current City Council members have had plenty of chances to address poor sidewalk and street conditions downtown, but have failed to do so. “I don’t think we ever met our full commitment to those who are physically challenged and need better access [to walkways]. If you are happy with the condition of the sidewalks downtown, then you ought to be happy with the current council and the current people up here. Past behavior predicts future behavior, and I believe that in every walk of life.”
He continued, “If you think we can do better, you’re going to have to vote for change. Every street and every sidewalk has been allowed to decline to the point where it’s not functional in a lot of cases. The people on Council … have had ample opportunity to hear you and do something about it, and I would simply suggest it’s time for a change.”
City Council member and candidate Cecil Bothwell expressed his concerns with the growing number of cigarette butts discarded on the streets of downtown Asheville. “There are a lot of issues around cleanliness, and probably the worst problem that we have — from my observation downtown — is cigarette butts,” Bothwell said. “That piece of the problem is principally triggered by the state law that prevents people from smoking inside bars. So they go outside and drop their butts on the street.”
Bothwell suggested Asheville take a lesson from Black Mountain and ban smoking on public sidewalks. “If it works out in its first year there, I’d advocate that Asheville go the same direction,” he said. “We’d just stop smoking on the sidewalks. That’d be one big piece of the downtown mess.”
He’d also like to install recycling bins and additional trash receptacles around downtown to lighten the burden on business owners, who presently must work to keep the sidewalk adjacent to their properties clean.
Each candidate was asked whether he or she supports the Business Improvement District, and the positions were as follows: Manheimer — yes; Miall — yes; Bothwell — no; Lanning — yes; Smith — no; Wainscott — no; Wisler — no.
Bothwell backed up his position by saying, “Tax money should be spent under the direction of elected officials and not under the direction of a BID. It’s our responsibility on Council to do that and not to be passed off to some unelected board.”
The discussion then moved on to address an increase in crime, as moderator and WCQS News Director David Hurand mentioned, “Asheville Police Chief William Anderson announced a 52 percent increase in violent crime and a 34 percent increase in property crime in downtown Asheville over a three-month period this summer.”
Council candidate Gwen Wisler acknowledged the current understaffed police department, and how it is city Council’s job to make sure the city manager has the budget necessary to staff law enforcement agencies within the city. “Really it’s City Council’s job to make sure the money is there,” she said. “That’s the job of the Council. I would make sure they had adequate fiscal resources in order to decrease our crime rates.”
Jonathan Wainscott addressed similar concerns with his question, which focused on homelessness and aggressive panhandling in the streets of downtown. “I would say this is just another issue of downtown crime prevention,” the City Council candidate said. “I would like to see the use of an auxiliary police force in the city. These would be peace officers responding to nonviolent crimes and traffic accidents. That would perhaps free up some of our more highly trained officers.”
“There are a few cities in the country who use an auxiliary police force,” he continued. “Some are volunteer-based, and some are paid. I would like to see a paid staff-job of career officers who would like to keep the peace.”
When asked if she would consider discounted parking for workers downtown, Wisler said, “I definitely would like to explore that and understand what the cost would be. I would prefer improving transpiration choices and encouraging downtown workers to use the mass transit as opposed to parking decks. The idea of discounting parking for workers is something I would certainly explore.”
On a similar topic, Lanning stated, “Anybody that works in City Hall knows it’s hard to find parking. … We need to build some more parking decks.”
When asked a question on supporting an ordinance penalizing private property owners for not removing graffiti, City Council incumbent and candidate Gordon Smith was quick to distinguish graffiti vandals from graffiti artists.
“I would like to thank the graffiti artists in this town who put up beautiful murals that discourage graffiti vandals and help us become more of an arts destination, as you see it wherever you go,” Smith said. Graffiti vandalism “is going to be one of the first things that your Council does address. And I don’t have the answer yet.” But he said he figures it will entail one of two options: either hiring a cleanup crew to scour downtown and paint over vandalism within a 48-hour period, or asking business owners to take it into their own responsibilities to see their properties are free of tags.
As for a solution to the topless issue in downtown, Lanning said, “You can’t force local police to enforce laws that aren’t on the books. About the only way that it can be addressed is to not publicize it so much. People want to come down and view it, make a mockery of it, make fun of it. Unless these laws are changed, I really don’t think anything can be done about it. … I’m sorry.”
When it came to what each candidate believed was the most pressing issue downtown is currently facing, opinions varied.
Bothwell and Wainscott agreed that the influx of tourists who do not pay city taxes and, therefore, do not help fund city maintenance projects is the most detrimental issue. Smith said the main issue is to retain authenticity downtown by gearing business not toward tourists but toward the residents of Asheville.
Lanning pinpointed the increasing crime rate as Asheville’s biggest problem, and Wisler addressed that downtown should be managed differently from the rest of Asheville, citing construction on sidewalks during peak tourist season to be one of the mismanagements faced downtown.
Manheimer said the most pressing issue — which all of the night’s topics fell under — is the pressure downtown faces from having such a huge commuter and tourist population. She said that while the influx is a “blessing economically,” it “threatens Asheville and what makes Asheville special,” she said. “So to me, the greatest challenge downtown is to navigate the balance between essentially being extremely popular and trying to sustain what makes Asheville a special place. The downtown needs to be maintained and enhanced by the city — everything from cleanliness to safety and infrastructure.”
Miall cited poor city management as one of Asheville’s greatest current faults, saying the most pressing issue is “commitment, or lack thereof.”
“There was a core commitment to improve downtown for many years,” he continued. “Downtown [has] declined over the past several years. But I think the single biggest issue facing downtown going forward is what level of commitment do you have from the city of Asheville and your elected leaders? We know what it’s been the last four years, and if you’re happy with that, then you’ll be happy reelecting the same people to Council. If you believe we can do better … you’re going to have to make changes.”
— Hayley Benton is an Asheville freelance journalist.