All fried on the campaign trail

“Keep working on your chicken, but we have some fish to fry up here,” Larry Fincher told the small crowd gathered for the first post-primary candidates’ forum — a Leadership Asheville luncheon on Oct. 13. He might have added that it could be a challenge distinguishing the fish from the chicken, because the six people vying for three seats on Asheville City Council all speak the same language: Let’s avoid urban sprawl; we need affordable housing; let’s attract well-paying jobs to the community; our infrastructure needs attention; and we must have a well-educated work force.

“We do pick up ideas from one another,” candidate Jim Ellis conceded at an Oct. 14 forum.

But as one forum observer complained, “How do I tell you apart?”

Hint: Listen closely, watch each politician in his or her native environment (or a hostile one), and you’ll pick up on a few things. To that end, Mountain Xpress tracked the candidates at several local forums.

Mountain Housing Opportunity’s Terry Whitmire was the top vote-getter in the Oct. 5 primary — and she didn’t run a single television ad. Local attorney (and former Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods president) Brian Peterson came in second. A handful of votes behind him was two-time City Council member Charles Worley, an attorney and former Water Authority chairman. Close behind the top three was incumbent City Council member O.T. Tomes, the pastor of New Mount Olive Baptist Church (“Just call me O.T., instead of Reverend.”). Western North Carolina Alliance Director Brownie Newman took fifth place. And another political newcomer — former Chamber of Commerce Director Jim Ellis, who runs the Black Mountain Center (a state health facility) — finished sixth.

Fish fry

First, let’s ask a few questions. How did a 27-year-old political newcomer — Whitmire — manage to finish first in the primary?

Observe: When Mountain Xpress arrived at the Oct. 14 Taxpayers for Accountable Government forum in West Asheville, Whitmire was already on the scene, shaking hands and talking to folks. A stout older man wearing jeans and suspenders sauntered up to Whitmire and exclaimed, “Hey, girl!” Never mind that most of the people in the room could have been Whitmire’s parents or grandparents. Never mind that TAG members are generally a conservative, old-fashioned bunch. Whitmire blended in like butter on warm toast.

When asked questions, she kept it straightforward, to the point, and short: “Yes, I would support [revising] the UDO.” After the forum, Whitmire admitted to following the advice of TAG co-founder Arliss Queen: “Long answers get you in trouble,” she said.

But her best point with this group may have come when they asked the candidates whether residents facing annexation by the city should have a say in the matter? Whitmire replied that she supports annexation — with citizen input.

Second, which candidate really brought urban sprawl into the discussion? That would be environmentalist Brownie Newman — who’s also 27. He told the Leadership forum attendees: “I think we need Council members with long-term vision. … What model of development do we want to follow, in the next 20 to 30 years? Atlanta? Charlotte? Is sprawl an inevitable response to growth? The answer is no.” Newman advocates revitalizing the neighborhoods and business centers we already have, and encouraging growth patterns that give us the option of walking to work, school or shops.

Status-quo growth patterns in the city, he argues, are “unhealthy”: “If all the growth occurs in the county, we’ll have urban sprawl,” Newman predicts. And sprawl, he says, means more traffic; more traffic means more air pollution, and that’s just for starters.

Third, who brought affordable housing into the discussion? That’s Whitmire again: She’s worked for Mountain Housing Opportunities for a number of years, and is currently serving on a housing committee sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. At the Oct. 20 forum at UNCA, she stood before a small group of students, professors and residents and quipped, “This is a pop quiz — you didn’t know you’d have one, did you?” She asked what the average price of a home in the Asheville area was last year and what it is now — $127,000 and $144,000, respectively. “We’re outpricing our low-income and working families,” Whitmire declared.

She recommends continued efforts to rehab older homes and build small-scale, multifamily units in the city — designed to fit the scale and character of Asheville’s neighborhoods. “Single- and multifamily housing can go together. Developers can make affordable housing blend in, so it doesn’t depreciate the value of surrounding homes,” Whitmire told the UNCA group.

A little maturity

How are the other candidates responding to the dialogue?

Charles Worley reminds voters that he worked on crafting the Unified Development Ordinance, back in 1997, and says he regrets the resulting reduction in land zoned for multifamily use. “There were pressures to isolate our neighborhoods,” he said about a related Council decision — which he opposed — to make duplexes and other small-scale, multifamily development a conditional use in neighborhoods zoned strictly single-family. “And the UDO leaves out mixed-use development,” he continued at the UNCA forum.

“We’ve done some things to deter affordable housing,” Worley told the Leadership Asheville group. He suggested relaxing the restrictions on duplexes in single-family neighborhoods, and urged bringing neighborhoods, developers and affordable-housing advocates together. “They are interdependent. Neighborhoods must understand that we’ve got to have good business growth, for the vitality of the city. Businesses and developers must respect the need to have good neighborhoods,” he declared.

“There’s no easy answer,” conceded Jim Ellis. “Jobs and affordable housing are linked,” he told the Leadership group. And bringing in higher-paying jobs so people can afford to live here in Asheville isn’t necessarily the answer: Silicon Valley created good jobs — and now the average home costs half a million dollars, he pointed out. And, when Ellis lived in Boston, city officials committed to building 5,000 affordable-housing units — only to discover, when the project was completed a few years later, that they had a waiting list of 10,000 residents. “We say we want government to help. But we also say, ‘Get government off my back!’ We have to convince developers that they can build the kinds of development — including affordable housing — that creates communities where we can walk [and] bike to work, schools and shops,” Ellis told TAG members.

Brian Peterson responds with caution: The UDO standards for multifamily development in existing neighborhoods “are there to protect the neighborhood. We have to take into account what it’s going to do to the neighborhood.” He reminded TAG members that some developers haven’t addressed design issues in the past, and that many existing neighborhoods are already “built out” — there are few, if any, vacant lots in his own West Asheville neighorhood, for intance. “Affordable housing isn’t going to spring up in these neighborhoods.”

And, he told TAG members, “The city could start looking at [locating] larger, multifamily units along our thoroughfares.” Peterson suggested Haywood Road: This corridor, like many others in Asheville, is in the early stages of revitalization and has many vacant second- and third-floor buildings where affordable housing could be placed. He also pointed out, to the UNCA group, “It’s economics: Affordable housing isn’t profitable for developers.” And that’s not strictly the fault of zoning restrictions, either: Buncombe County doesn’t have zoning (yet), but developers are mostly doing mobile homes and $200,000 site-built homes there, Peterson observed.

Most Asheville neighborhoods are quiet, friendly, walkable and convenient to town, he continued. “We want to protect that. But I want to bring peace to the process. There’s too much business-vs.-neighborhood.”

O.T. Tomes responded that zoning restrictions “are an inhibiting factor. We must embrace mixed-use.” As for neighborhoods, developers and affordable-housing advocates — “We’ve got to overcome the turf issues,” Tomes urged. As he has, repeatedly, during his two-year stint on City Council, Tomes emphasized that all the involved groups must participate in “collaborative partnerships.”

Money talk

“How do you explain six anti-business candidates [who will] serve on an anti-business Council?” candidates were asked at the TAG forum.

Naturally, the five candidates present (Peterson, Whitmire, Worley, Newman and Ellis) all said they do support business. “I see economic development as an integral part of the city’s vitality,” Whitmire replied. She has argued that affordable housing, economic development and education (her platform issues) are tightly interrelated.

And Ellis pointed out that the media have already pegged him as the pro-business candidate, because of his 21 years’ experience working for the Chamber of Commerce.

But Worley wisecracked: “I guess you can explain six anti-business cnadidates by saying, ‘It’s a free country.’ I’m just glad those six didn’t make it through the primary.”

Worley emphasized: “Cooperation, that’s what we need. The Chamber, city, county, the region — we compete with each other. But the reality is, Asheville is out of space for manufacturing companies. [Buncombe] County has some [available land], and we have to realize the city would benefit if industries located nearby. We’d boost our sales-tax revenue.”

Both Newman and Whitmire suggested that city officials should take better care of our existing businesses. Newman added, “We can market Asheville, aggressively, on its quality of life.” And Whitmire emphasized the importance of education — both through partnerships with local schools and support for addressing the city’s high dropout rate.

Ellis agrees: “In some ways, it starts with education. But we’ve also got to have clean air and affordable housing. It’s all interrelated.”

But Peterson introduced a twist at the TAG forum: With all the talk in recent months about attracting high-tech, high-paying industries to town, he observed, “Asheville may be bypassed in the high-tech revolution if we don’t have high-capacity Internet connections. Asheville is very limited in that.”

And Tomes remarked to the UNCA crowd, “I deal with people, every day, who don’t know how to use a computer, yet we expect those people to compete for high-tech jobs.” Also key to economic development, he emphasized, is infrastructure. Citing Asheville’s history of leaky water lines, Tomes declared that city officials must address such infrastructure problems.

Then again, there might be an easier way to broaden Asheville’s tax base and ease the burden on city residents: Annex Biltmore Estate.

Someone in the TAG group posed this what-if question. Several candidates remarked that such an annexation probably isn’t possible, because the Estate would hardly meet the state requirement than an annexed area be highly urbanized and populated. Joked Worley, “That sure would increase the tax base, wouldn’t it?”

To which a man called out, “How long would you live, if you tried?”

“It would depend on how many bodyguards I had,” Worley replied.

Parting shots

Now, let’s draw a few conclusions.

For sheer experience — serving on City Council, dealing with the UDO, and chairing the Regional Water Authority — Worley stands above the rest. “I won’t stand up here and give you a litany of my past experience,” he tells voters. But he will say, “I have the knowledge of how city government works.” And Worley does: He can explain the convoluted Water Agreement, recite city-government history and tell you, almost to the penny, how much the city subsidizes the public-transit system (nearly $1 million a year).

For a dose of experience and popularity, there’s O.T. Tomes. He’s well respected in the community, having founded Building Bridges to help overcome racial divisions, and always — always — emphasizes “collaborative partnerships.” After listening to a pro-county-zoning speaker and an anti-county-zoning voice, he urged the two sides to “bring us a third solution.” And even in the hotly contested Trinity Baptist expansion — which he approved — Tomes lamented the fact that the church had not worked more closely with the neighborhood to address concerns and ease fears.

Then, too, there’s no denying Ellis’ managerial experience: He’s worked for chambers of commerce for 21 years (including here in Asheville), and for the past 14, he has managed the Black Mountain Center, a state-run health facility. Ellis also — as the “most mature candidate in the final six” (he’s 65) — brings a certain historical perspective: As he told the folks gathered at UNCA’s Highsmith Center on Oct. 20, “I served on the UNCA board of trustees back when Dr. Bill Highsmith was on board.”

And, responding to accusations at the TAG forum that he’s a bought-and-paid-for Chamber candidate, Ellis pointed out that the Chamber’s membership is “as diverse as TAG or CIBO. And, by the way, I supported the 3 percent hotel room tax many years ago, and I thought [some Chamber leaders] were going to hang me.”

Yet the results of the Oct. 5 primary suggest a strong desire by voters for new faces and youth on Council: Three of our six finalists are under 40 years of age, and two are under 30. Peterson, who’s been in the thick of city politics (behind the scenes) for years, is a strong advocate for neighborhoods, but one willing to “make peace,” as he says, with other groups in Asheville. Newman makes a strong case for changing the status quo in our growth patterns — not just because urban sprawl can be bad for the environment, but because it affects the quality of life in Asheville, whether we’re talking about the lack of affordable housing, the weakening of our infrastructure, the low wages in the area, or our aging park facilities. And Whitmire has managed to appeal to a spectrum of Asheville voters, in no small part because she does her homework, proactively seeking input from business leaders, homeowners, renters, city officials, watchdog groups, students, kids and activists.

So, take your pick. On Nov. 2, each registered Asheville voter gets to choose up to three candidates for City Council, as well as pitch a vote for or against countywide zoning.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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