“Either we open the box and finish the job, or we put the box back under the tree.”
— outgoing Council member Brian Peterson
For want of some answers, a project was postponed. After years of preparations, a redevelopment plan for downtown Asheville’s Eagle Street neighborhood seemed poised to move forward. But at City Council’s Nov. 18 work session, as city staff struggled to explain changes made during the proposal’s lengthy evolution, Council members seemed to grow increasingly confused — and frustrated.
With questions mounting about the financial details of the project and only one more meeting scheduled for the current incarnation of the Asheville City Council, city leaders, in a rare work-session vote, wound up tabling the issue — in effect, handing it off to the incoming Council.
What had been billed as a simple budget amendment to accept grant and loan funds sparked a muddled discussion of the complex structure of the financial partnerships involved.
The development plan, a decade in the making, originally called for the nonprofit Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation to restore three buildings on The Block — the heart of the city’s traditionally African-American business district — creating a mix of retail and residential space (see “Fire and Brimstone” box). In the interim, however, the project has expanded considerably in scope.
And as new development partnerships have formed over the years, the financial arrangements have also changed, leaving Council reluctant to green-light the entire project without getting some clarifications first.
But that proved to be easier said than done as Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan tried to answer a host of questions.
Caplan explained that in June 2001, Council had authorized applications for an $800,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a $340,000 HUD grant. Those moneys, she predicted, “will jump-start redevelopment efforts” along Eagle and Market streets.
As the question-and-answer session grew ever more convoluted, it seemed to bolster the argument made by some property owners that further discussion and education are needed before the project moves forward.
And after some discussion and study of a flow chart detailing the various interested parties, it became apparent to Council that the plan had changed a bit too much for comfort since it last came before them.
“This is the first time we’ve heard this,” noted Council member Joe Dunn. “This really bothers me.”
Caplan, however, argued that despite the alterations to the plan, the city should act now, because rising interest rates could cause developers to pull out, bringing the whole complex edifice crashing down.
But that argument didn’t sway Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, who said, “You are bringing [up] everything, and it’s making everyone a little upset.”
Council member Holly Jones, meanwhile, seemed concerned that there hadn’t been sufficient public input on the retooled plan. “Public comment is pitiful to date,” she observed, adding, “Maybe we should take a little bit more time.”
A public meeting had been held the night before (see box), and Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford stressed that it’s the responsibility of the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation to handle public comment on the project.
“This project had a lot of momentum two years ago, but memories fade, and the project does change,” Shuford observed.
Several Council members asked for more information: a breakdown of the financial details, and a meeting with those city staffers involved in working out the fine points of the plan.
Mayor Charles Worley, meanwhile, pointed out that the decision was slated for a Council vote at the Nov. 25 formal session — the last scheduled meeting before outgoing Council members Brian Peterson and Jim Ellis are replaced by Brownie Newman and Jan Davis.
In another unusual move, the mayor — emphasizing that he wanted to see a decision made before the upcoming changing of the guard — called for an additional work session to be shoehorned in later that same week.
But Peterson warned that after educating this Council, a decision would have to be made quickly, or else the new group would have to start over from scratch.
“Either we open the box and finish the job, or we put the box back under the tree,” he said. And considering one property owner’s prediction that 200 people would want to speak at the public hearing, Peterson was not optimistic about Council’s ability to get it done. In addition, Jones said she would be out of town the day of the next formal session and would therefore be unable to participate in any further discussion at that time.
At this point, Dunn made a motion to remove the issue from the agenda until the new Council takes over. But even that proved awkward. In order to salvage even a semblance of normal procedure, Council first had to hear public comment on the proposed delay.
Four people weighed in, split evenly on the issue.
“There’s a whole lot of support for this in the community,” said Pastor John Grant of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, a key player in the proposed redevelopment. And after conceding that there are unanswered questions, Grant urged Council, “Please don’t put this on the table and leave it there.”
Executive Director Elizabeth Russell of the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation echoed Caplan’s earlier concern about delaying the project.
“We need to move forward, because interest rates are rising,” she warned, adding ominously, “I don’t know that we have a lot more compromise to give.”
But neighborhood property owner (and former Council member) Gene Ellison wanted more information, however long that might take. “This is not something to be rushed into,” he said. “We are not in a hurry.”
Eagle Street property owner Jesse Plaster agreed. “There needs to be more public debate,” he said, adding, “The plans that were reviewed by Council are significantly different than they are now.”
In the end, Dunn’s motion to postpone consideration of the matter was approved on a 4-3 vote, with support from Peterson, Bellamy and Jones.
The city has already filed for an extension on the grant, and another one will have to be filed if no decision is made by late next spring, 2004.
The ABCs of money
But Dunn wasn’t finished. Speaking from the podium, he proceeded to take aim at the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Citing the agency’s 2002 audit, Dunn questioned the board’s management practices, calling for a full investigation.
A frustrated Dunn said he’s been trying to meet with the board and has requested information since he first came to Council in 2001, but his efforts had proved fuitless.
And when he did get his hands on the 2002 audit, noted Dunn, it highlighted significant problems with the way the board is run, including substandard record-keeping that he said could lead to financial mismanagement. As of Nov. 18, Dunn said he’d still been unable to obtain a copy of the agency’s 2001 audit.
Among Dunn’s concerns were missing or contradictory financial records and a lack of procedures and oversight on the handling of funds.
The local ABC stores collect about $14 million annually, said Dunn, “and they can’t even keep the records straight.” The city of Asheville receives a significant share of the profits.
Dunn wanted Council to take several steps: investigate the extent of the problems (including a review of the current board), expand the board (from three members to five), and look at how other cities’ ABC boards are run. Dunn’s boldest move, however, was his call for an SBI investigation of the board and the possible resignation of its members.
Mayor Worley said he and Dunn plan to meet with the ABC Board and request a new management audit; depending on the findings, further steps might be taken later.
ABC Board member (and former Council member) Barbara Field said she and the rest of the board would welcome some of Dunn’s ideas.
“We have a complete audit under way, but we would welcome a second audit. If [the city] would pay for it, that would be great.”
Field also agreed that expanding the board to five members would be a good move — though she noted that this would require action by the N.C. General Assembly. As for Dunn’s suspicions, Field said simply, “I don’t know what his concerns are.”
At the moment, the ABC Board has no chairperson. Council agreed to postpone appointing someone to fill that vacancy until after the meeting with the board.