A change of venue

How many people will attend? Will the acoustics be adequate? Will there be enough parking? Those are some of the vexing questions that caused Mayor Leni Sitnick to, in her words, “lose sleep over this.” The city’s dilemma was where to hold a potentially volatile Nov. 14 public hearing on the Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for the former Gerber site in south Asheville.

Let’s consider some possible options:

Yalta, Versailles and Camp David have all seen their share of strife, but they aren’t exactly accessible to local folks. Biltmore Estate is plenty roomy — there’s enough space for an army of lawyers and activists — and it commands a splendid view of the surrounding pristine countryside, to boot. But it’s privately owned, and the lord of the manor demands a tithing, so forget the Big House. McCormick Field seems like an obvious choice. The Tourists are on vacation (no pun intended), and since the ballpark already houses our national pastime, why not let it also accommodate our other national pastime: government? There are plenty of seats, great sightlines, and best of all, Nov. 14 is a Tuesday (which, as any local baseball fan can tell you, is 50-cent hot-dog night). But alas, winter is upon us, and even if there were time to build a dome over the field, it would require a hefty tax increase.

Seriously, though, there’s been some confusion about the venue for the hearing. Last week, Xpress reported that it would be held in Council Chambers, with any spillover crowd accommodated in a conference room (equipped with television monitors) one floor below. This information was confirmed by city staff just before publication. As we reported last week, at the end of the Oct. 24 City Council meeting, Sitnick asked city staff to recommend a suitable location. (This was after Council had discussed such options as the Civic Center or the Stephens-Lee Center; at no time did the mayor or any Council member suggest using an overflow room on a separate floor in City Hall).

According to Sitnick, city staff made this recommendation after learning that the Civic Center was already booked and considering certain complicating factors at Stephens-Lee (which had one minor function already scheduled and has questionable acoustics). At that point, some city staffer suggested the dual-room solution. To the mayor and other Council members, it seemed like an acceptable answer to a time-sensitive question involving numerous variables (one being how many people will attend).

But as word got out about the choice of venue, phones started ringing. Previously, neither the mayor nor City Council had heard much from constituents about the Gerber Wal-Mart proposal (during the debate over another Wal-Mart proposed for the former Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries site, on the other hand, city offices were inundated with letters and calls). Apparently, however, many city residents were unhappy with the prospect of split-level government. And as the calls kept coming in, city officials began to wonder whether even two rooms in City Hall could accommodate all the interested citizens.

Said the mayor: “I started getting phone calls about this, and Monday night I agonized over this. I called [City Manager] Jim Westbrook and said that I was going to call each member of Council and tell them that there still is the possibility of people standing in the hall. And I am not comfortable with that. Everyone I reached agreed. If we can’t accommodate everyone in these two rooms, then we’ll need to change it.” She added, “If this [changing the venue] creates a little inconvenience for staff, then that’s better than inconveniencing the public. … This was a change in decision to better accommodate the public — period.”

But community activist Adam Baylus, who opposes the Wal-Mart project, said he finds it difficult to believe that Council could so underestimate the number of citizens interested in attending the hearing. On Oct. 24, Baylus had told Council members that concerned citizens had thus far refrained from contacting them because of the quasi-judicial nature of the hearing. (In order to head off potential lawsuits by disgruntled parties after the fact, Council members are asked, in such cases, to avoid anything that could give the appearance of prejudicing them before the formal hearing.)

Said Baylus: “It surprised me that Council members can assert that they have no idea about the size of the opposition to the Gerber Wal-Mart, given that [Planning and Development Director] Scott [Shuford] and [Senior Planner] Gerald [Green] have gone to at least three meetings, one of which I went to, where there were at least 75 people expressing their outrage over the proposal. I feel that staff is failing in their mission to serve … citizens by not conveying back to Council members what they learn out in the community.”

When asked to respond to that accusation, Shuford declined to comment.

So the Nov. 14 hearing, which starts at 5 p.m., will now be held in the Stephens-Lee Center, just off South Charlotte Street near the Public Works Building. Heading south on South Charlotte, make a left onto Max Street at the traffic light. The Stephens-Lee Center is up the hill on the left.

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