Good will between Honda Hoot organizers and city officials could be as simple as a dozen doughnuts and a parking decal.
“It’s a matter of give and take [and] a ‘can-do’ team attitude,” American Honda representative Charles Keller told Asheville City Council members during their Nov. 17 work session. To Keller’s way of thinking, that means the city ought to give the company — which has organized the Honda Hoot in Asheville since 1994 — a break here and there.
To Council members, it means coming up with something that’s fair to everyone — including downtown merchants, city residents, Hoot organizers and participants, other conventions, and the city’s coffers. “I love the Honda Hoot, [but] there has be a balance,” said Council member Barbara Field.
During his presentation, Keller stressed that the event has brought at least $16 million into the local economy over the past five years. It has grown from 1,254 registered participants in 1994 to over 7,000 this year, he reported. The event is good for Asheville — giving the city national exposure — and it’s good for Honda, Keller argued. He asked Council members to consider giving Honda Hoot organizers price breaks, better parking arrangements, more consistent permit fees and a more positive attitude.
Keller’s exhibit A, as it were, of past problems with the city was doughnuts: Civic Center concessions charged the group $9 per dozen for Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which retail for one-third that price — too big of a markup, he argued, and a sign that the city isn’t willing to work with American Honda (after haggling earlier this year, the doughnut price was reduced to $6). And the city appeared to harass motorcylists who parked on downtown streets, Keller continued. City inspectors also changed permit fees unexpectedly, he alleged, asking to have one city staff person Hoot organizers could deal with for permits, fees and other issues that arise.
“We don’t have a genie that can put all that together,” said City Manager Jim Westbrook. The permits required by Hoot events mandate review by both Fire and Building Safety inspectors, he pointed out. As for parking, staff are working with Hoot organizers to issue decals next year that will enable participants to park four motorcycles to a metered space without feeding the meters all day, Westbrook noted. He presented Keller with a detailed breakdown of parking citations issued during the Hoot earlier this year: Only 138 of 585 total citations were issued to motorcyclists (roughly half were for “overtime” parking in metered downtown spaces).
Field added, “We do have some [downtown] merchants who complain bitterly about motorcycles parking in front of their buildings, and their customers can’t come in.” She remarked that “fees are fees,” and they “aren’t open to interpretation,” urging Hoot participants to obey the rules — and city inspectors to be more consistent in quoting fees and permit requirements to organizers.
Mayor Leni Sitnick commented, “Our attitude is … affected by what’s good for the community.” After quizzing Civic Center Director David Pisha, she pointed out that the prices Hoot organizers were charged for doughnuts, coffee and other amenities reflect labor costs. And, she added, “If [we] set a precedent and break [it] for one group or organization, [we’re] setting ourselves up for other organizations to ask for similar breaks.” In earlier talks with Keller, she had told him that the city couldn’t offer a price break on Civic Center rents and fees (Hoot organizers have asked the city to waive the $27,000 rent; other cities have offered to do so, in trying to entice the Hoot to relocate, Keller has reported).
Council member Tommy Sellers pointed out that no one gets a break on Civic Center rents: When Council members had to use the facility to meet with Asheville Motor Speedway fans the night of Nov. 10, “We had to pay $350 to use our own Civic Center [banquet room].”
“I heard that loud and clear,” said Keller. If Council members can’t offer the Hoot a big break now, he suggested that they look to the future and consider changing city policies, to offer incentives to conventions.
The city already has an incentive policy for new and expanding businesses — why not conventions, as well, Chamber of Commerce President and C.E.O. Jay Garner suggested, pitching the 2,000-member Chamber’s weight behind Keller. “If we lose the Hoot, what does that say to other conventions?” asked Garner.
Several local businessmen also spoke up for the Hoot, including John Winkenwerder, a third-generation Asheville hotel owner. The Hoot brings $5 million per year to Asheville-area businesses, he stressed, adding, “[That’s] something we cannot afford to lose.” Winkenwerder urged Council to “get over the nitpicking” about doughnuts and parking and other issues for the Hoot. “Figure it out: We don’t care about the doughnuts.”
Field quickly calculated that Hoot vendors eat about $120 worth of the pastries. “Between the two of us,” she said to Winkenwerder, “we could probably pay for that.”
Council member Chuck Cloninger suggested that the Future of the Civic Center Task Force — chaired by Vice Mayor Ed Hay — look into an incentives policy for conventions.
Hay responded that the city’s business-incentives policy is based on how much the business pays in property taxes; for conventions, the policy might have to be based on estimated sales-tax returns.
And that could be a hard number to compute, Westbrook pointed out: Of that $5 million per year spent in the Asheville area, it will be a challenge to figure out how much is actually spent in the city — as opposed to nearby attractions such as Biltmore Estate and Chimney Rock (both outside the city limits). By state statute, Asheville gets about 2 percent of the sales tax paid on items purchased in the city.
“It’s certainly worth taking a look at it,” said Cloninger.
“We’ve got the doughnuts taken care of. What’s left to negotiate?” Field asked.
Keller replied that he would put all Honda’s suggestions in writing and get them to city staff as soon as possible.
Said Hay, summarizing Council’s attitude on the issue, “I don’t think we want to lose the Honda Hoot.” He pointed out that the event has grown substantially in size since 1994, commenting, “We’re talking about growing pains. We do intend to work together.”
Bonds for homes and parks
You could call them quality-of-life bonds, to improve city parks and help people build affordable homes — but will Asheville residents swallow the $28 million price tag?
Asheville City Council members recently agreed to let city residents vote, next May, on whether to issue $18 million worth of bonds to pay for renovations, improvements and new construction of city parks and greenways. The bonds would add about 3 cents per $100 worth of valuation to property owners’ tax bills each year. A recent Trust for Public Land survey indicated that city residents appear willing to pay that extra 3 cents, but not more, Council member Cloninger pointed out during a Nov. 17 work session.
But if Council adds $10 million worth of housing bonds to the referendum, will voters approve either issue? “It’s doubtful,” asserted Cloninger, urging Council to go ahead with the park bonds but to delay the housing bonds, which would provide $2 million per year, over a five-year period, for a revolving loan fund available to builders of homes valued at less than $85,000. “Let’s not jeopardize the parks-and-greenways bond,” he urged.
Although repayments and interest on the loans issued through the housing trust fund might be enough to pay off the bonds, the city would have to pledge tax revenues as repayment, up front — which could mean an additional tax increase, City Director Bill Schaefer later explained.
Other Council members echoed Cloninger’s concern, and Mayor Sitnick suggested that city staff also look at other funding sources for housing, besides the bond proposal. “Let’s explore everything,” she urged.
Affordable Housing Coalition Director Beth Maczka commented, “We don’t want to propose affordable housing to the detriment of parks.” But, she argued, a comprehensive “quality of life” bond could pass in Asheville.
“The housing bond could be considered later,” noted Schaeffer, saying he will prepare the documentation required for setting the parks-bond referendum for May 1999.
Said Cloninger, “We don’t want to just fight the good fight: We want to win on both these issues.”