Asheville City Council

A week after the Asheville City Council passed a new anti-soliciting ordinance that bans begging, blocking sidewalks and sleeping in public, Downtown Commission Chair Carol King asked Council to establish a task force to study “social issues” (including homelessness and addiction).

“It is no news to you that this is a very complex issue,” King told Council members at their Nov. 19 work session.

Problems such as homelessness, loitering, panhandling and graffiti, noted King, result from the urbanization of Asheville and thus fall under the Downtown Commission’s mission “to provide for the viability of downtown.”

King, an Asheville accountant, also serves on the board of the All Souls Counseling Center.

The Downtown Commission had formally proposed the task force in a Nov. 8 letter to Council that also expressed support for the anti-solicitation ordinance. The task force, said the letter, would “complement the legal tools provided by the ordinance.”

King told Council that the ordinance supplies the “boundaries in behavior” that are needed downtown.

Besides consulting the police and downtown business owners, the commission has also sought input from the mental-health community, missions and local homeless people, reported King.

“We need to be inclusive of all the areas when we’re looking for help,” she told Council.

Reached later, King lamented that the recently passed ordinance has focused only on the homeless. “The problem is much bigger than that,” she observed. “The people doing graffiti are not homeless.”

Although the Downtown Commission has been exploring and building support for the task-force idea for about a year, nothing has been nailed down at this point. Simply defining the group’s specific purpose could take up to six months, King maintained, citing examples of the missions of similar groups in other cities, such as “Stamping Out Homelessness.”

Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy said the task force’s mission should be solution-oriented, noting, “I think we know the problem.”

Asked what resources the Downtown Commission would need in order to proceed, King said the City Development Office should be able to provide useful data.

“Information is our most valuable resource,” she declared, adding, “We have a lot of homework to do.”

Under prodding from Mayor Charles Worley, King agreed that the Downtown Commission will take the initiative in defining the task force’s role and selecting members and then bring the fruits of those efforts back to Council for modification or approval.

Asheville at the movies

Come next November, movie buffs from far and wide may converge on Asheville for a new film festival. At least that was the picture painted Tuesday night by Cultural Arts Superintendent David Mitchell of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The festival, said Mitchell, is more than just another local arts event. The city has increasingly attracted the attention of major movie producers, whose projects bring revenue to local businesses and city coffers, he noted.

High-profile films like The Last of the Mohicans and Hannibal have attracted other projects, and facilities like Blue Ridge Motion Pictures (a multimillion-dollar studio and support company that opened here two years ago) bring the promise of an expanded movie-industry presence. The festival, said Mitchell, would support those trends. All that’s needed, he maintained, is for the city to allocate $28,250 to get the ball rolling. That money (in the form of proceeds from existing events like Bele Chere) is already in the city’s Festival Enterprise Fund, City Manager Jim Westbrook explained later.

Other funding would come from vendor fees, sponsors and festival income. The event, said Mitchell, is projected to pay for itself in its first year; based on 50 percent attendance, the festival is projected to take in about $144,000 next year.

Planning for the event began about 18 months ago. The target date is Nov. 6-9, 2003, and Mitchell said talks are under way with local venues such as the Fine Arts Theater and Diana Wortham Theatre. The response, he reported, has been enthusiastic.

Mitchell stressed the many ways the film business supports the city’s economy. Locally filmed blockbuster movies, he noted, boost tourism (the much-ballyhooed Robert Redford project The Clearing, filmed in Asheville only months ago, poured an estimated $2.5 million into the local economy in four weeks of shooting, he said). And local artisans are typically hired to provide historically accurate props.

But with money in short supply, the prospect of ponying up the city’s initial investment prompted some handwringing.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” declared Council member Joe Dunn, “But I do question your numbers. What if it doesn’t work?” Noting that Council had just concluded a round of budget cuts, Dunn wondered whether the timing was right.

But Mitchell countered that the festival is a good bet. “Staff has done thorough research on this,” he said, and Bellamy noted that the careers of many of the people involved with the event are linked to its success.

Council will vote on the requested budget amendment during the Nov. 26 formal session.

(Re)drawing the line

A joint local/state planning organization that plans transportation projects in Buncombe County will be expanding into surrounding counties by next year, a planning coordinator told Council. But the exact boundaries of the organization’s area of coverage have not yet been determined.

Metropolitan planning organizations are federally mandated partnerships that link local governments with state agencies such as the Department of Transportation to develop plans for everything from highways to bike paths. Currently, there are 17 MPOs in North Carolina.

Up till now, Asheville’s MPO has dealt exclusively with Buncombe County, but 2000 census data dictates that it expand its coverage into Henderson and Haywood counties. Urban areas, defined by the federal government as those having a population greater than 50,000 according to census information, must have an MPO in order to receive federal transportation funding.

MPO Coordinator Dan Baechtold showed Council members a newly drafted map displaying the proposed perimeter for the expanded MPO.

According to federal regulations, MPOs must include not only those areas dictated by census data but also those expected to reach urban density within the next 20 years.

The new map includes both existing urban areas and those based on projected future population growth. It is these more rural areas that are open to discussion before the map is finalized.

Eight local governments, both city and county, now participate in the MPO; another eight may be added with the adoption of the new boundaries.

Not everyone is happy about the new designations, however. Henderson County, noted Baechtold, is balking at participating. The city of Hendersonville, however, meets the required population numbers and will be participating.

“This is kind of like forced annexation being forced on us by the federal government,” griped Council member Brian Peterson. He also serves on the Transportation Advisory Committee, the MPO’s policy-making arm, along with Council member Holly Jones.

Peterson went on to cite a number of other concerns. Although the census data classifies areas such as Fairview as “urban,” Peterson said he would hesitate to call them that. And if the expanded MPO uses “weighted voting” (which assigns votes based on population), bigger players such as Asheville could have more influence on decisions affecting smaller, outlying areas. As the MPO grows, noted Peterson, it could also come into conflict with RPOs (rural planning organizations), which are being established to handle transportation planning outside metropolitan areas. Communities like Fairview and Leicester, he said, should have their decisions made by representatives appointed by their county and residents, not by Asheville.

Baechtold’s presentation was strictly informational, requiring no immediate action. Council has until January to approve a new MPO boundary.

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